Obama risking more deadlock

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian Islamic leaders have observed five US presidents, including Jimmy Carter who was president during the revolution. Two were Democrats and three Republicans.

Does the presence of a Democratic or Republican president make any difference to relations between the two countries? Judging by these five presidents and three decades of hostility between Tehran and Washington, government changes in the White House have made no difference.

The same observation is true of changes in government in Tehran. Hostility toward Washington remained unabated under the pragmatists led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformists led by Mohammad Khatami and the hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, even though the three governments pursued different policies on many issues.

There was, however, one exception. President Khatami pursued a more moderate foreign policy that even included softening Tehran’s hitherto belligerent tone toward the US. The move was not reciprocated by US President Bill Clinton; this was a blow to the reformists in Tehran. The opportunity was ultimately destroyed when the hardliners seriously opposed the olive branch Khatami extended to the Americans.

History aside, there are serious obstacles to any rapprochement between the two countries. Although at an early stage in his campaign Obama expressed his desire for "direct and unconditional talks" with Ahmadinezhad, he was forced to deny this statement and replace it with a declaration of willingness to negotiate directly with Iranian leaders, not necessarily Ahmadinezhad. The reason behind Obama’s denial is not difficult to understand. It goes back to the root of the dilemma. Ahmadinezhad is hugely unpopular in the United States. His Holocaust denial, calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, speeches at the United Nations General Assembly and remarks in interviews and speeches in the US have all made him a remarkably unpopular figure among many Americans.

This was the backdrop to Obama’s denial that he ever suggested negotiating with Ahmadinezhad. In other words, as long as the present Iranian president is in office, US officials, and notably the newly-elected president, understand that there is very little prospect of rapprochement between Iran and the US.

A few days after Obama’s victory, in a move that surprised everyone and particularly many in Iran, Ahmadinezhad congratulated him. But nearly a month has gone by, Obama still hasn’t replied and it appears that he is in no hurry to do so. In fact, given the extent of the Iranian president’s unpopularity in the US, it is plausible that Obama is waiting for the Iranian presidential elections that take place next July, in the hope that Ahmadinezhad will not be reelected, thus generating a moral justification for the US to conduct serious negotiations with his successor.

Better still from Obama’s standpoint, if former president Khatami, who is far more sophisticated, moderate and liberal than Ahmadinezhad, is elected, then there would be a real chance for a breakthrough after three decades of stalled relations between the two countries. Hence Obama has not bothered to reply to Ahmadinezhad’s message of congratulations, nor for that matter has he mentioned anything about what he intends to do regarding Iran.

Obama is right; there is far more common ground between him and Khatami. But he is taking too many risks. To begin with, although there has been a lot of pressure on Khatami to run, so far he has refused to do so. Many Iranians are still asking whether or not Khatami will stand in presidential elections in seven months time. A second important question is how confident one can be that he would actually win. Then too, many Iranians are wondering if there is any point in voting for Khatami given his overall weak performance during his earlier presidency. In any event, the hardliners will prevent him from effecting a rapprochement with the US in much the same way they did last time.

Taking all this into consideration, and given that thus far Ahmadinezhad appears to have a better chance than most of the other candidates to win the next elections, Obama must not put all his eggs into the "non-Ahmadinezhad basket". Ignoring Ahmadinezhad and hoping to negotiate instead with a more moderate and pragmatic Iranian president risks antagonizing the hardliners in Tehran to the extent that they adopt an even more extreme stand toward the US. They are angry and their pride was hurt when Obama failed to respond to Ahmadinezhad’s message. We must not forget that while Ahmadinezhad is greatly admired by the hardliners, even he faces criticism by some of them for congratulating the newly elected US president.

Perhaps the best course of action for Obama regarding Iran would be to assume that he will have to deal with Ahmadinezhad or another similar hardliner during the next four years.