The Future of Iranian-American Relations

A shift in US policies toward Iran was already discernible at the end of the Bush presidency.  With the extreme right wing of the neoconservative movement marginalized and the US army bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration amended its policies in accordance with a re-assessment of the United States’ capabilities after the debacle in Iraq.  Post-Iraq, the US is not the same as in 2003.  Before and during the euphoric first year after the invasion, the Bush administration boasted of an “axis of evil” that had to be combated in a grand march that would deliver an unending “war on terror”.  In 2007, a less exuberant administration pursued low-level diplomatic talks with the Iranians under the auspices of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki in order to mediate the security situation in Iraq.

There is a second impact that the Iraq war had on the United States and by extension on relations with Iran.  It delivered the presidency to Barack Obama, if not as the only cause then certainly as an incubator for the success of Obama’s campaign, which was premised on a US posture in world politics that would be less confrontational.  Obama made it clear that there would be a break with the anti-diplomatic rhetoric of the Bush administration.  The current, arduous rapprochement with Iran is a central part of that reconfiguration of US foreign policy.

Historic meetings with Iranian diplomats on the nuclear issue have followed and the clandestine, behind-the-curtain negotiations are intense.  Of course, by all rational measures available, the idea that Iran poses a national security threat to the United States or even Israel is absurd.  The fact that Iran has been turned into the new “global” threat is indicative not of the reality of Iranian intentions and capabilities, but of the hierarchy that is inscribed in the institutions of the international system (IAEA, UN, etc.).

The peoples who have been at the receiving end of Israel’s indiscriminate military power do not need reminding that the Israeli state in actual fact did what Iran is alleged to be planning.  The Israeli state sits on a stockpile of nuclear weapons.  It invaded its neighbors.  Israeli intelligence kills and kidnaps political leaders on foreign territory.  The Israeli army committed war crimes.  Israelis occupy and colonize Palestinian territories in contravention to a whole range of international laws.  Indeed, the suspension of those laws in order to leave Israeli transgressions unpunished is a major source of illegitimacy for the “international community”.  It makes it that much more difficult to assert legal authority in negotiations with Iran, or other countries for that matter.

And yet, despite concerted efforts by the Israeli right wing and its allies in the US Senate to escalate the situation and manufacture the next war in western Asia, there has been movement toward a “cold peace” between Iran and the United States.  The changed rhetoric of Obama has been seen as an opening by the foreign policy establishment in Iran, which has, in recent months, increased its independence from the fractious domestic politics of the country.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself is now firmly at the receiving end of the foreign policy decision-making process.  His role has been visibly reduced.  He is now merely communicating the current policy to his constituencies.  The institution of the president has never been at the centre of the planning and making of Iranian foreign policies.  But the ongoing challenge to Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy has seriously constrained his ability to affect the discourse on international issues and to surprise Iran’s diplomatic corps with yet another unwanted outburst on the international arena.

At the time of writing there are two factors that make it rather unlikely that Obama would seek a grand opening with Iran comparable to Nixon’s China policy in the early 1970s.  First, the Iranian right wing’s amateurish and unnecessarily violent crackdown on the opposition “green movement” has made it all but impossible for any western leader to be associated too closely with the Ahmadinejad quasi-presidency.  And second, Obama has been neither willing nor capable of casting away the imperial ghosts of America’s past.  Why, for example, is it that the administration of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate does not feel compelled to put the “Jundallah” (God’s soldiers) group on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations?  In May 2009, the group claimed responsibility for the killing of civilians in a mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province.  Last month, a Jundallah suicide bomber blew himself up at a long overdue gathering which was meant to foster closer community relations between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the area.  It seems that in this case, the Obama administration adheres to the shortsighted “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” logic that has misguided US foreign policy for quite some time now.

A sober assessment of the security challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and beyond and the reality of Iran’s geopolitical centrality to the area requires something else: a daring break from the legacies of the past and a decisive step toward a strategic Iranian-American dialogue that would go beyond the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear energy program.  If peace in the region is the aim, furthering diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, however prone to crisis they would be, must be pursued in earnest.

Born in Istanbul and educated at the University of Hamburg, American Universtiy (Washington DC), and Cambridge, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam lectures on politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  The author of Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (Hurst/ Columbia University Press, 2007/2008) and The International Politics of the Persian Gulf (Routledge, 2006), he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  He was also elected Honorary Fellow of the Cambridge European Trust Society at the University of Cambridge.  His latest publication Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic is now available for worldwide distribution from Hurst & Co.,, and Columbia University Press.   This article was first published by on 5 November 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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