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reflections

Feb 9, 2009 | 02:55 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The Ongoing Stall in U.S.-Iranian Relations

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.
At the Munich Conference, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that Washington is open to talks with Iran, but he appeared to retain the Bush administration’s requirement that the Iranians halt their nuclear program and change their attitudes in the Middle East — undoubtedly referring to Israel and Iraq. Biden said, “Continue down your current course, and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism, and there will be meaningful incentives.” On Sunday, the Iranians responded. Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani said in an interview with the state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency that Iran was indeed prepared to pursue discussions with the United States, but that “this depends on whether the U.S. is prepared to change its strategy. We have to know what their objectives are.” He went on to say, “The question is as follows: Do the Americans want to pursue the same old policies against Iran by merely using a different tone?” The fact is that Biden and Larijani both have left U.S.-Iranian relations exactly where they were under George W. Bush. The Americans are prepared to talk to the Iranians if they change their strategy, and the Iranians are prepared to talk if the Americans change their strategy. In short, both want the outcome of negotiations to precede the negotiations rather than follow them. There has been no change on either side. The question now is how far atmospherics go. They are not irrelevant, nor are they decisive. The Iranians have indicated that they see President Barack Obama in a different light than they did Bush. Obama has indicated more flexibility on openings to Iran. That sets the stage if anyone wants to make a move, but unless someone makes a move soon, the atmosphere will shift. The problem for Obama is that he has far too much on his plate to pay the political price for engaging Iran. Between his economic stimulus package, decisions on how quickly to withdraw from Iraq, a real problem in Afghanistan and tension with the Russians, Obama's hands are full. A dramatic opening to Iran could cost him support, and he can’t afford to lose any right now. Moreover, Iran just does not seem to be a pressing issue right now. Bad relations with Iran are far from Obama’s worst problem. As for the Iranians, they have a presidential election coming up in June. Some believe the pre-election dynamics are pressuring the government to open to the United States. The Iranian economy is in shambles, and there are some who equate an end to Iran’s tension with the United States and Europe with an improvement in its economy — at least symbolically. Former President Mohammed Khatami, frequently called a reformer in the West, has announced that he is entering the presidential race, which could signal the possibility of a shift. But opening to the United States also could bring a massive backlash against a presidential candidate in Iran, just as opening to Iran could cost Obama. Furthermore, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and he trumps public opinion every time. He is not likely to accept Bush’s terms in Obama’s clothing. Thus, in our view, U.S.-Iranian relations remain frozen for now at least, and neither side sees a thaw as the most urgent issue. Which leads to the question of the status of the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program — about which much has been said but little done. Obama now has the same intelligence as Bush did, and he seems as disinclined to act militarily as Bush — or for that matter, the Israelis. We continue to suspect that Iran is further from having a deliverable weapon than others might say. In any case, as in many of Obama’s policies, there has been no change so far from Bush’s stance.

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