Sunday, March 22, 2009

The War for Iran's Future

Mr. Obama's current "overtures" (as the Media seems fond of saying, this week) towards Iran have seemed somewhat naive. Simple rhetoric with Iran has proved grossly ineffective. And opening salvos of generosity with the country tend to leave the United States in a much worse bargaining position than it began, with little to show for it (see: Jimmy Carter). Potetntially, tit-for-tat deals, struck in series, could lead to a gentle "unwinding" of the currently-tense relationship between Iran and the United States.

I thought for some time that Mr. Obama's apparent optimism was due to a lack of understanding about the history of the Iran-US relationship. Many people I know think that it was Mr. Bush's placing of Iran on the "Axis of Evil" that caused relations to sour, but I'm not sure they've ever been good. The Clinton years were a period of marked denial by the West over how the non-West felt about the West (and the US in particular). Tehran was quite thrilled when the WTC fell--long before the Axis of Evil.

But while content to hold an opinion of naivete for the inexperienced American president, I was jostled recently by hearing that French president Nicholas Sarkozy was on board with Obama's plan to open up the Iranians. This seemed strange--Mr. Sarkozy is quite the conservative, recently re-joined full NATO command after 43 years of absence, and was probably the leading voice in Europe calling to deliver tough sanctions to Iran for its nuclear program. It made me think a bit.

In June, Iran holds its presidential elections. Back when Mr. Obama was elected, folks gathered in the streets of Tehran to vent their cautious optimistic energy. They tuned in to Voice of America to get the US scoop. They got excited.

Sadly, such excitement didn't mean too much, but Mr. Obama is likely trying to take advantage of it. By extending his hand to the Iranian people rather than its leadership, and in particular by giving an address that outlined specific policy changes necessary to put Iran on good terms with the West, Mr. Obama (in his video address) did a few things simultaneously. First, he snubbed Iranian leadership and made it clear that they were far too conservative and oppressive. Second, he specifically outlined what the US was offering, and in the light of current trade sanctions and general isolationism, it seems like a lot. Third, the US cast the first stone, but made it clear that a strong response was necessary--indeed, it is clear that Mr. Obama is putting himself out on a limb.

And I think that Mr. Obama got the response that he was looking for. Iranian leadership did not laugh off the video, but it did make some pretty bold demands of policy change--offering only talks or negotiations in return. The current Iranian leadership does indeed want a dialogue with the US, but feels it must stand firm against the US, lest it give credit to its moderate parties. But if Mr. Obama's videotape can ring true among the Iranian people, then Tehran's leadership clamming up will give all the credit to Iran's moderates that they need. Tehran must walk a very fine line, now. But if they are not able to, they must make a choice: balk and concede a friendly attitude and open negotiations, or remain rigid and unmoved, causing already-weary Iranian citizens to question their leadership right before the election.

So it looks like all of Mr. Obama's talk may be part of a very quiet war for Iran's future, fought through diplomacy. Should he be successful, he will have landed a victory (though a relatively small one) on the long-time agenda of conservatives in the US: regime change in Iran. Mr. Obama is in no particular rush to have these talks, but the Iranian leadership may be. Over the next few months, Obama can simply continue to put pressure-with-a-smile on Tehran, and hope that they make a mistake in either direction. In the words of the US President that Obama admires most: "Heads I win, tails you lose."
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