On Tuesday this week, in a rally celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Iranian President Ahmadinejad softened his recent more hostile stance to the US by welcoming talks based on ‘mutual respect’. This came on the back of a number of recent reports, ever since the election of US President Barak Obama last November, suggesting a historic three-decade thaw in Iran-US relations.
First came news, immediately after the Nov 4th election, of the new US administration’s intentions to deal directly with Iran. Then the Guardian learnt of a letter being drafted by the state department giving assurances that the new administration would not attempt to topple the Iranian government. Finally at the end of January came Obama’s interview with al-Arabiya TV where, paraphrasing from his own inauguration speech, he said that “If countries like Iran [were] willing to unclench their fist, they [would] find an extended hand from us.”
The ‘clenched fist’ refers to Iran’s supposed self-imposed isolation for the past three decades. And, in the way it has been reported by the Western media, this view was vindicated by Ahmadinjead’s initial response to Obama’s ‘extended hand’ which called for an apology for past US crimes against Iran and a withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq.
Given the history of US intervention in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s initial reaction was not as outrageous as the Western commentators would like to think. Indeed, as Muhammad Sahimi argues in this brilliant piece - from the CIA coup which overthrew Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and support for the Shah’s dictatorship during the 60s and 70s, through to the backing of Saddam Hussain in the devastating Iran-Iraq war and the shooting down of a Iranian civilian airbus in 1988 - Iran’s fist might be clenched for a reason. Rather it’s been the American government’s clenched fist that has suffocated Iranians lives for decades.
Almost everyone would welcome a new dialogue between the US and Iran especially if it were to avert another devastating war. We must recognize however that this shift didn’t start with Obama’s election. The last few years has seen a battle between different sections of the US administration over their Iran policy. The likes of Bush and Cheney advocated war, but were increasingly sidelined by the disastrous consequences of their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the latest US attempt, following successive administrations, of wrestling US hegemony over the Middle-East and dealing with the loss of the their most strategic ally in the region, the Shah, in the Iranian revolution of 1979. But far from rebalancing the forces in the region in their favour, the neoconservatives achieved the opposite. Iran extended its influence and emerged as a regional power. The failure of the Iraq war, the Israeli defeat at the hands of Hezbollah in 2006 and the propaganda disaster of the recent invasion of Gaza have only strengthened Iran’s hand. On the Arab street, Iran has been the only power in the region prepared to stand up to Israel and the US.
As the neoconservatives lost support, other sections in Washington who wanted to deal with Iran, gained ground. Back in 2006, the Baker-Hamilton report called for direct talks. Last summer, the state department considered opening a diplomatic mission in Iran and Under Secretary of State William Burns engaged in the first direct talks between the two countries over Iran’s nuclear programme. More importantly, the US army generals expressed open opposition to military intervention and the contradictions of all this played out politically.
So whilst Obama’s election appears to resolve these contradictions, his willingness to talk to Iran, though encouraging, is not new. But if he is honest about a real change in policy and a new US-Iran relationship then his ‘extended hand’ has to be more than symbolic.
The lifting of the crippling US sanctions must be the first and most immediate step. Far from effecting the government, sanctions have rippled past those in power, increasing prices and putting pressure instead on a population already suffering under difficult economic conditions with high unemployment and inflation at 24%. As Ali Mostashari argues they also have a negative impact on Iran’s strong, functioning civil society:
Iranian state-owned airlines are flying dilapidated planes that put passengers at risk, and the consumers purchase U.S. products at double or triple their original price. Iranian students intending to study at U.S. academic institutions cannot take standardized tests such as TOEFL and GRE, and Iranian academics are barred from publishing papers in U.S. based scientific journals, since the U.S. Treasury considers editing an article a financial service…the sanctions are undermining the growth of a civil society that could serve as a vehicle for democratization in the country.
And if the recent Iraq war is any warning on the consequences of military intervention, then so too are the sanctions that preceded it: a UNICEF-estimate of half a million children died as a result.
So an ‘extended hand’ would involve immediately lifting the crippling US and UN sanctions. It would also would mean releasing the millions of Iranian assets frozen by the US ever since the Iranian revolution. It would involve engaging in direct talks with the Iranian government over its nuclear programme without any preconditions. It would call for an end to the $400 million allocated to regime change in Iran through covert operations and stoking of ethnic divisions. And of course, it would require the immediate end to the threatening presence of the US navy fleet and nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf with guaranteed security of the Iranian state from any military intervention from the US or Israel.
Unfortunately Obama is far from such proposals with talk of increasing sanctions and refusing to rule out military intervention. In the same interview with al-Arabiya, he spoke of Iran in the same rhetoric as the Bush administration. He has chosen to keep the Bush official involved with Iran sanctions in his post and is likely to appoint the former US ambassador to Israel, Dennis Ross - who wants tougher sanctions and military intervention on the table - as his senior advisor on Iran. Of course, these appointments won’t feel out of place in an administration including chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel who has served in the Israeli Defence Force and Hilary Clinton who talked of ‘obliterating’ Iran in her Democratic Party nomination campaign. Nor do they contradict Obama planning to send more troops to Afghanistan, extending bombing into Pakistan and thus refusing to end Bush’s War on Terror.
It’s true that a shift in US-Iran relations is now quite possible and an immediate war with Iran unlikely. But despite all the talk, Obama’s foreign policy has so far in practice changed very little from the previous administration. A policy of engagement needs to respect Iran as a serious player in the region and on equal terms. Campaign Iran has always campaigned against war and sanctions on Iran. We aren’t shutting up shop any time soon.