Make no mistake about it. The overtures that President Barack Obama has made to Iran since his election in November 2008 are momentous. In his first sit-down interview, which he symbolically gave to the Arabic satellite network al-Arabiya, Obama addressed Iran directly, asking the leaders of the country to "unclench their fist" so that they can shake hands with the "international community". On the occasion of the Persian New Year celebrations in March 2009, he reiterated his willingness to talk to Iranian leaders, setting a markedly different tone than his predecessor George W. Bush. Although his administration has not followed up rhetoric with policy yet, Obama has set the stage for rather less raucous engagements between the two countries. This may yield a "cold peace" characterized by diplomatic rivalry rather than militaristic coercion.
On the other side of the cognitive divide, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad became the first Iranian leader in three decades to officially congratulate a US president-elect, a gesture acknowledged by Obama at a news conference in January 2009. So there is a lot of politics involved at this stage, including backdoor messages via third parties (e.g., Turkey and Switzerland) and a good dose of "veiled" or clandestine diplomacy. In general, many are hoping that things are moving in a better, rather more conciliatory direction.
This salutary moment of hope, intermittently suspended when Ahmadinezhad usurps center stage such as during the recent UN racism conference in Geneva, should not distract from the real strategic issues that threaten to keep the US and Iran apart. The strategic preferences of the two countries continue to clash along three issues: a) the pro-Israel policies of the US versus Iran’s subversion of Israeli power within the region and beyond; b) US efforts to contain populist Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizballah versus Iran’s support for them; c) and the United States’ opposition to populist leftist movements, especially in Latin America, which clashes with Iran’s close cooperation with them.
So, on the one side we have Iran, which perceives itself as an ideological superpower poised to export the revolutionary call for empowerment and independence to receptive agents in the international environment. On the other side, the United States (including Obama) firmly believes in the Americo-centric configuration of world politics. These self-perceptions are in many ways mutually exclusive. But that does not mean that the US and Iran need be perennial enemies. What we can realistically hope for in the short run is a "cold peace" that can be achieved within three interrelated contexts and along three mutual interests. In Iraq, both the US and Iran support the stability of the al-Maliki government and the unity of the Iraqi nation-state. This mutual interest has already led to some low level diplomatic engagements throughout 2008. In Afghanistan, an equally important strategic theater, both states oppose the resurgence of the Taliban and support the government of Hamid Karzai politically and economically. And on a global scale, both the US and Iran are opposed to al-Qaeda type movements that are virulently anti-American and anti-Shi’ite/anti-Iranian.
Tehran will pay particular attention to US initiatives vis-a-vis the nuclear issue. More specifically it will measure the policy-value of Obama’s conciliatory speeches with an assessment of its actions in the United Nations Security Council. Thus far the Obama administration has not shown any willingness to move away from the rather aggressive sanctions policy pursued by successive US administrations, which has done nothing but alienate the pragmatists in Iran. Yet an emphasis on "positive" rather than gunboat diplomacy is required in order to prepare the way for trust-building measures between the countries. For at the center of Iran’s concern is an understandable insecurity dilemma that needs to be addressed in any negotiations, given that the country is geo-strategically located at the heart of a conflict zone that extends from Palestine/Israel in western Asia, over Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan/India in southern Asia. To put it simply: a state that does not feel threatened would not think about nuclear weapons in the first place.
These are some components for a positive-sum game between the two countries that would ensure that both parties benefit from dialogue and acknowledgement of each other’s interests within a context of mutual respect and engagement. It would seem to me, therefore, that any efforts from the neo-conservatives in the United States and their brothers in arms in Israel to entangle us in a confrontation with Iran must be understood not as a recipe to prevent the country from going nuclear, but rather as incitement to surreptitious aggression and a prelude to war. And that is exactly what we do not need.