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reflections

Nov 7, 2008 | 02:56 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Iran and an Obama Administration

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A number of senior Iranian officials on Thursday issued positive statements toward the United States. One of those was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, in a rare move, congratulated U.S. President-elect Barack Obama on his electoral victory. Then the Islamic Republic's Prosecutor-General, Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dori-Najafabadi, called on Obama to demonstrate goodwill and end sanctions against Tehran. Elsewhere, Iranian Ambassador to Kuwait Ali Jannati said his country was ready to normalize relations with the United States and expressed hope that, under an Obama administration, Washington would change its policies toward Tehran. Important to note in these various remarks is that they were made by prominent hard-liners as opposed to the more pragmatic conservative elements in the clerical regime. The most noteworthy of these was the Iranian envoy to Kuwait, who is the son of a very senior and powerful radical cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council — the body that vets candidates for public office and has the power of legislative oversight. So, the question is, why is the Ahmadinejad administration, which would normally be lambasting the United States, now acting all warm and fuzzy? For starters, the Iranians, like many other international actors, expect an Obama administration — in a sharp departure from the attitude of its predecessor — would invest heavily in some bold diplomacy. From Tehran's point of view, this potentially could provide the perfect opening for it to move ahead and consolidate its position vis-a-vis Iraq and the nuclear issue. The Iranians feel that they are well placed to negotiate with a new White House from a position of relative strength, especially given Obama's need to make good on his electoral promise to disengage militarily from Iraq. The interest of a geopolitically emergent Iran, however, is not the only factor informing Ahmadinejad's calculus. Before it can truly improve its position, Tehran desperately needs to get ahead of a burgeoning economic crisis. Just two days ago, Iran's deputy central bank governor for economic affairs, Ramin Pashaei, said that Tehran needs the price of oil to average a little over $60 a barrel until March 2009 (the end of the current Iranian year) to avoid "big problems." It should be noted that on Thursday oil prices were barely able to stay at the $60 mark. The faltering state of the Iranian economy is the sore point for Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election in June 2009. He, therefore, desperately needs to show some sort of victory in order to secure his re-election. The president and his ultraconservative faction also realize that Tehran must bury the hatchet with the United States in order to achieve its objective of being a global player — and Ahmadinejad wants to be able to claim this success. On the U.S. side of this equation, an Obama administration also will want to engage diplomatically with the clerical regime — but the million-dollar question is, how does it go about doing that without creating problems for itself both at home and internationally. The Bush administration, which was not bogged down with public doubts about its commitment to national security, has been unable to make much progress on this front. Even in its fading moments, the Bush administration is struggling between the need to deal with Iran and the need to contain it. On Thursday, the Treasury Department imposed additional restrictions against Iran's banks — a move that comes amid reports that the administration could announce the opening of a "U.S. interests section" in Iran before the end of November. The Bush administration has also had a hard time balancing its need to engage Iran with its commitment to its Arab allies and Israel. For an Obama administration, this could create an even bigger problem, with the Israelis and the Arabs very uncomfortable with the new U.S. government reaching out to Iran. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is hoping to be prime minister in the aftermath of the Israeli election slated for February, expressed opposition to any move on the part of an Obama administration to talk to Iran. Similarly, Saudi King Abdullah, who is due to arrive in New York next week for an interfaith gathering at the United Nations, will reportedly be putting out feelers to Obama in an effort to gauge how the balance of power in the Persian Gulf will be affected by the moves to engage Iran. Striking a balance between the need to reach a settlement with Iran (on Iraq, at least) and the need to maintain existing relationships with Israel and the Arab states could very well prove to be the most challenging foreign policy issue that the Obama administration will find itself struggling with very early on in its term.

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