With love from Obama

With love from Obama
Will US, Iran be on speaking terms?
by H.K. Dua

FESTIVALS all over the world come in handy to exchange goodwill and sometimes dissolve personal quarrels. Nations, like individuals, have often used such occasions to make new beginnings, getting over pride, prejudice and wounded egos that often sharpen international divides.

Last week, President Barack Obama made use of Nauroz, the Iranian New Year Day, to send a video message to the people and rulers of Iran to end a 30-year-old stalemate in the relations between the United States and Iran.

That Iranian rulers would reject the President Obama’s overture was only to be expected. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, described Obama’s statement as “meaningless slogans”.

Neither President Obama’s message nor the immediate negative response it evoked was unexpected. President Obama and his policy advisers must have anticipated how Teheran would initially react to the message aimed at both the people and the leaders of a hostile power it shunned for three decades. To bring about a thaw in the relations for long in the deep freeze is bound to take time.

President Obama had spoken about his intention to engage with Iran during his campaign. After his taking over as President, he let out similar thoughts in a television interview.

Such utterances could be regarded as statements marked at least to let Iran and the world know that he meant to make a departure from George W. Bush’s foreign policy in many areas.

There have been reports that some informal contacts have been taking place between President Obama’s men and influential Iranians during the last few months. The two countries, which have not been on speaking terms, might have been probing each other’s mind. Come to think of it, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran had also sent a message of greetings to Obama on his election as President.

It will, however, be unrealistic to believe that President Obama’s video message will bring about an immediate change in the conflicting policies of Iran and the US and their relations. But it certainly signals that Washington under the new President has rejected George Bush’s demonising of Iran by describing it as a member of an Axis of Evil.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that there would be no change in the relations between the two countries unless Obama put an end to US hostility towards Iran and brought about “real changes” in foreign policy. “If you are right that change has come, where is the change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei apparently wants Obama to move a few more steps forward and go beyond merely expressing a desire to improve relations with Iran. Apparently, he has kept the door somewhat open when he says: “You change, our behaviour will change”. He has clearly thrown the ball back in Obama’s court wanting him to do more to respond to the longstanding grievances Teheran has been nurturing against Washington.

How long President travels or will be able to travel remains to be seen. President Obama is clearly changing tack on Iran, but there are strong compulsions for him to think of making it up with Iran.

The West Asian imbroglio cannot be sorted out without settling with Iran. Also, if President Obama’s priority is to get out of Afghanistan in the next two or three years he would need Iran’s cooperation, particularly for stabilising the situation in Herat province in Afghanistan, which shares borders with Iran.There is considerable Shia population in Herat.

Western European powers have by and large never really shared American antipathy towards Iran and have often found ways to violate the UN sanctions imposed on the country under US persuasion. The Europeans could not make George W. Bush to change his attitude towards Iran, but they seem to be succeeding with the Obama administration.

President Obama’s plans to improve relations with Iran may not be all smooth sailing for him. His plans can be scuttled along the way.

The Jewish lobby in the US is a powerful entity and is backed by Israel. Iran’s main rival in West Asia is actually Israel which has the clout and ways to block any policy shift towards Iran in the US Congress. Israel itself can do quite a few things on the ground to spoil Obama’s scheme of things.

Also, the neo-cons in the Republican Party, who are generally close to Israel and the Jewish lobby, are certain to oppose Obama’s Iranian venture.

Another hurdle can be the Sunni regimes like in Saudi Arabia which have been America’s staunch allies in West Asia, including the Persian Gulf nations, which are opposed to moves that may enhance Iran’s status and muscle power in the region.

Whatever the public statements, Iran’s leaders must be carefully scrutinising Obama’s video CD to figure out what he really wants by choosing to end a 30-year history of acrimony, bordering on mutual hatred.

One message that emerges from the Obama video is the implied recognition that his administration no longer thinks that Iran is a member of an Axis of Evil as was sought to be inexplicably defined on moral terms by George Bush.

Iranians might read in the Obama video that Washington is no longer going to take nasty steps to bring about a regime change in Teheran – an idea George W. Bush Jr often fiddled with, but without success. The Americans, however, are unlikely to give up their tilt towards the moderates in Iran, hoping that one day the moderates will come to power in Iran.

Despite a preference for the moderates, Obama at present sees some advantage in dealing with even the hardliners and the clergy led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei if nothing else for breaking the ice.

The so-called “grievances” of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are basically Teheran’s longstanding demands which it would like the United States to meet.

Iran, which has been living in isolation for over 30 years, would certainly like to rejoin the comity of nations, but, besides the assurance that Washington has given up its policy of regime change, it is bound to demand the withdrawal of international sanctions that the UN had clamped on it under American pressure.

On the other hand, the United States might be wanting to regulate the withdrawal of the sanctions with Iran’s readiness to stop aiding terrorist groups working against Israel, Washington’s closest ally in West Asia.

The trickiest question in the Iran-US relations will be Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme which has been a constant thorn in American flesh over the years.

Iran has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but has refused to accept the US demand to stop its nuclear enrichment programme. It has maintained that it has the right to have a bomb of its own. The question of its rights apart, it has reportedly been conveying to the IAEA and several countries that its enrichment programme is within 5 per cent as needed for running nuclear power reactors. The weapon-grade enrichment has to reach 93 per cent.

The Obama administration may have come to the conclusion that it will be better to engage Iran in talks on the enrichment issue and wean it away from its ultimate aim of developing nuclear weapons.

President Obama’s Nauroz message to Iran notwithstanding, it will take some time before the two countries actually sit down and begin sorting out their differences, which have kept them away all these years. The video CD is a New Year gift-pack. And Iranians are looking deep into it to find out whether there is something more in the box, besides greetings.