United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

The Obama Administration

John Limbert
 
  • During his campaign and after taking office, President Obama repeatedly declared his determination to break the 30-year downward spiral in U.S.-Iranian relations.
  • During his first two years in office, Obama twice wrote Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but did not receive a response to his second letter. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad twice wrote Obama, but did not receive a reply.
  • Iran, beset by internal political battles, has had trouble changing the patterns of the past. At the same time, the Obama administration faced congressional pressure to take tougher action against Tehran.
  • Both sides claim the other is not responsive to its messages, and both risk falling into the familiar, dysfunctional ways of the past when confronted with perceived intransigence by the other.
 
Overview
        President Obama inherited 30 years of hostility in U.S.-Iran relations. During the previous decade, the two longstanding rivals had engaged in unofficial outreach. Track II diplomacy had included exchanges of scholars, athletes, filmmakers, scientists and artists. But the unofficial meetings could not diminish the underlying tensions, and, in some cases, even increased suspicion.
 
        One of Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives was outreach to the Islamic world, including Iran. But reconnecting with Tehran proved difficult and frustrating. Diplomacy was complicated by political turmoil in Iran. As in the past, new diplomatic efforts between Washington and Tehran foundered on mutual suspicion, political ineptitude, misreading signals, bad timing and the power of inertia. Officials on both sides seemed unable to get beyond their classic responses, including:
 
  • Never say yes to anything. You will look weak. Insist the other side must change first.
  • Anything the other side proposes must contain some subtle trick. Its only goal is to cheat us.
  • The other side is infinitely hostile, devious, and irrational. Its actions prove its implacable hostility.
  • Whenever the smallest progress is made, someone or some diabolical coincidence will derail it.
 
A new message
            Six days after his inauguration in January 2009, Obama said in an interview with Al-Arabiyya that “negative preconceptions” lay at the heart of Middle East disputes.   He did not mention Iran specifically, but his meaning was clear: As long as Americans and Iranians assumed the worst of each other, there would be little chance of ending their 30-year estrangement. He made that point explicitly to Iran in his March 2009 message marking the Iranian new year (Nowruz). For the first time, an American president spoke directly to the government of “the Islamic Republic of Iran” as well as to its people. He called for “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” and quoted from 13th century Persian poet Sa’adi, 
            “The children of Adam are limbs of one body,
             Which God created from one essence.”
 
            In his June 4, 2009 Cairo speech to the broader Muslim world, Obama spoke of a “new beginning” between the United States and Muslims, “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” Referring to Iran, he acknowledged the difficulties in overcoming “decades of mistrust,” but he pledged to proceed with “courage, rectitude and resolve.” He said Washington was willing to move forward “without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”
 
            Iran’s disputed presidential election took place just one week later, followed by six months of sporadic protests and a brutal crackdown. The turmoil complicated diplomacy. Iranian opposition voices that had advocated engagement were now changing their position and urging Obama to take a tougher line. The administration was judicious in its public statements, balancing outreach to the Islamic Republic with defense of human rights. The statements emphasized universal rights, insisting that the Iranian people have the right to choose their leadership freely and the right to express themselves without fear of intimidation.
 
            Obama persevered, despite Iran’s unfolding political drama. He referred to Iran in his Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009. He said relations with repressive regimes were important even when engage­ment “lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.” In other words, the United States was giving priority to the larger interest of changing an unproductive relationship.
The White House sent another Nowruz message to Iran in March 2010. Obama’s tone was positive, although not as warm as the previous year. He again called for better relations, but he also issued a challenge to evoke something more positive or concrete from Tehran. “We know what you’re against,” he said. “Now tell us what you’re for.”
 
A nuclear proposal
           Obama backed his words with action designed to jumpstart diplomacy on the most serious issue dividing the two countries—Iran’s controversial nuclear program. In mid-2009, Iran contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency to ask for help finding fuel for the small U.S.-built Tehran Research Reactor. The facility produces radioisotopes for medical procedures that treat about 10,000 patients a week. Supplies of the medical isotopes were scheduled to run out by the end of 2010. In a deal brokered largely by the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency proposed a formula to provide fuel to Tehran while offering safeguards. Iran would ship 1,200 kg of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched, then sent on to France for conversion into fuel rods for Tehran’s reactor.
 
           The proposal was appealing to Washington because it would transfer about 80 percent of Iran’s known stock of low-enriched uranium outside the country. It would take about a year for Iran to replace that amount in its own enrichment facilities. The proposal initially appealed to Tehran because it would also provide at least tacit acknowledgment of its right to enrich uranium—a long disputed issue.
 
            But more importantly, the deal was also designed to build confidence among all parties and pave the way for comprehensive talks on all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program during that intervening year. Talks also carried the prospect of a broader dialogue on a wide range of issues of mutual concern. To prove good intentions, Obama allowed a senior State Department official to hold a rare meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator on the sidelines of talks about the deal in Geneva in October 2009. Tehran initially accepted the deal, but within weeks it collapsed.
 
            The deal appears to have fallen through for a variety of reasons, both domestic and foreign. The biggest problem may have been Iran’s internal political fighting. President Ahmadinejad initially embraced the deal. “We welcome fuel exchange, nuclear co-operation, building of power plants and reactors and we are ready to co-operate,” he said live on state television. But the reactor deal was soon criticized by Iran’s new Green Movement opposition as well as conservatives in the regime, both largely for political reasons. Ahmadinejad’s opponents did not want the president to get credit for any agreement favorable to Iran. Some leaders also may have feared that any change in the Islamic Republic’s underlying anti-Americanism would threaten the existence of their system.
 
Turkey-Brazil diplomacy
            After Iran reneged on the Tehran Research Reactor deal, the Obama administration began what it called a dual-track policy: Keeping engagement as a possibility, while pushing for new sanctions. Turkey and Brazil, two rising middle powers with seats on the U.N. Security Council, made one last attempt to revive the diplomatic initiative. As the United Nations moved toward a vote on sanctions, the prime minister of Turkey and the president of Brazil negotiated with Ahmadinejad in Tehran. The three signed a tripartite deal on May 17, 2010. The package included many features from the original Geneva deal. But Tehran found it more attractive because its low-enriched uranium would go to Turkey, a Muslim country with which it had better relations, instead of Russia. Iran also felt it could enlist Turkey and Brazil’s support in opposing the new sanction resolution at the Security Council.
 
            But the last-ditch diplomacy ended up a classic case of bad timing. Terms acceptable in October 2009 were not acceptable in May 2010. In the intervening seven months, Iran had enriched more uranium. The original deal called for Iran to transfer 1,200 kilograms, which then represented an estimated 80 percent of its stock. By May, the same amount was only about one-half of its stock. Nor did the new agreement deal with the 20 percent enriched uranium Iran had produced in the interim. The Obama administration—along with Russia and France, the original parties to the Geneva deal—viewed the revised package primarily as an Iranian attempt to avoid U.N. sanctions. By then the sanctions process had acquired too much momentum for the Turkey-Brazil deal to reverse. 
 
New U.N. sanctions
            The administration continued to work with Britain, France and Germany—the three countries that had led international diplomatic efforts with Iran—on measures in a new sanctions package. Unlike previous resolutions, however, the Obama administration wanted the resolution to include the long-promised incentives that Iran would receive if it cooperated with the international community and suspended its uranium enrichment altogether. After six months of complex negotiations, the Security Council passed Resolution 1929 on June 9, 2010. The final vote was 12 in favor, two opposed (Turkey and Brazil), and one abstention (Lebanon).
 
            Resolution 1929 requires U.N. members to block the transfer of technology related to either missiles or nuclear weapons and to cut off commercial access to uranium mining or nuclear materials production in their territories. It also imposes new restrictions on travel by Iranian officials associated with proliferation. It targets Iranian shipping lines affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and calls on member starts to refuse them financial and insurance services. Resolution 1929 also calls on member states to block new branches of certain Iranian banks in their territories.
 
The aftermath
  • Obama was willing to go further than any previous administration in normalizing relations with Iran. Despite repeated setbacks, Washington continued to look for opportunities to crack the diplomatic door open.
  • But the road ahead is likely to be frustrated by Iran’s fears, internal political friction and mutual hostility built up over 30 years without communication. 
John Limbert is the distinguished professor of international affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy. He previously served as former deputy assistant secretary for Iran in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
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