The Obama Administration
- 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’s nuclear program became the centerpiece of relations. From 2009 on, the U.S. insisted that discussion of all issues depended on resolving the nuclear question. The Islamic Republic took a similar position in 2013 after the election of Hassan Rouhani as president.
- After Iran backed out of fuel-swap deal reached in Geneva in October 2009, negotiations bogged down in haggling over scheduling and in sterile recitations of maximalist positions in prepared statements. In the Iranian case, these statements were mostly lists of grievances against the United States and other world powers involved in the talks. The Iranian side, beset by internal political battles, had trouble changing the patterns of the past. Its lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili, refused to meet with his American counterpart. At the same time, the Obama administration faced congressional pressure to take tougher action against Tehran.
- Events moved rapidly after Iranians elected Hassan Rouhani president in June 2013. The following two years featured professional exchanges between foreign ministers, a telephone call between presidents, and an agreement – finalized on July 14, 2015 – between Iran and the world’s major powers to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in return for relief from international sanctions.
- 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.
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.”
- U.S.-Iranian relations will remain difficult. The Islamic Republic will still have a dubious human rights record featuring heavy-handed treatment of women, journalists, intellectuals, and anyone who asks inconvenient questions.
- Grievances will continue to fester. Issues like alleged Iranian support for terrorist groups, Iran’s vocal hostility to Israel, and America’s perceived support for Iranian dissidents will complicate the relationship. Even while realities change, the Islamic Republic will continue to “whistle past the graveyard” and insist that nothing has changed.
- Assuming that the Vienna nuclear agreement holds, the United States and Iran will discreetly explore areas of cooperation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. The two sides may begin efforts to ease travel and visa restrictions and complete the work of the Hague Tribunal, established in 1981 to resolve financial disputes.
- Most Iranians will not see better living conditions immediately from sanctions relief. Although sanctions provided Iranian governments with a convenient scapegoat for their economic failures, corruption, mismanagement, unemployment, inflation, pollution, and drought will continue to take a heavy toll.
- Both the United States and Iran will have to move carefully to convince domestic hard-liners in both countries that the nuclear agreement and the new diplomacy does not represent a sell-out or an updated version of Munich or Turkmanchai.
Photo credits: Official portrait of Barack Obama by Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Flag by IAEA (Flag code: ) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Obama in Cairo from the White House via Flickr, Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili by European External Action Service via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)], Officials from the P5+1 countries by the U.S. State Department via Flickr
This chapter was originally published in 2015.
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