international analysis and commentary

Obama 2: The view from Tehran


The Islamic Republic of Iran carefully looked at the results of the US presidential elections, aware that its nuclear program will be one of the most pressing foreign policy issues the administration will have to deal with. The regime’s rhetoric has historically  neglected who sits in the White House, believing in a bipartisan nature of the fundamental policy goal of any US administration, i.e. regime change in Iran. Yet, since Obama won the 2008 presidential race, things have changed.

Four years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the first Iranian president to congratulate a victorious US presidential candidate. Although this time around the Iranian leadership refrained from such an open statement, reactions in Tehran have been mild, but not negative.

Reformist and moderate newspapers, such as Etemaad and MardomSalari, have highlighted the “defeat of warmongers” and the call for dialogue and enhanced diplomacy by Obama.

The conservative front surprisingly expressed similarly lukewarm but positive messages, pointing out that although the election results would not automatically lead to a normalization of ties between the two countries, Iran could negotiate with the US under the right circumstances.

Mohammad-Javad Larijani, Secretary General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, and brother of Iran’s influential Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, stressed how talks with the US are not a taboo, adding that if it would serve national interests, Iran would talk “with Satan himself in hell”. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast said that the “wall of distrust” between Tehran and Washington “ could be weakened”. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence published a report titled “Reasons and Obstacles of a Military Attack by the Zionist Regime Against Iran”, in which Obama’s diplomatic strategy was officially endorsed.

Recently, several conservative publications highlighted the differences between Democratic and Republican policies toward the Islamic Republic, linking them to the diverging relations of the two parties with Israel. On November 7, Fars News reported that, although both fronts are hostile toward Iran, the Republicans’ closeness to Israel brings them to openly support the use of military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities, in contrast with Democrats’ support for diplomacy and economic sanctions. The ultra-conservative Kayhan attributed to Obama the absence of change in policy toward Iran and the continuation of sanctions in the coming four years, arguing that the US President acts in continuity with his predecessor when it comes to Iran.  The conservative newspaper also predicted that the “Zionist lobby” will see its influence diminished because of the increasing mistrust between the US administration and Netanyahu.

For the first time in its history, the Islamic Republic is distinguishing between the “Great Satan” and the “Little Satan” (i.e., Israel), and indirectly between Republicans and Democrats in the US. In other words, key decision-makers in Iran seem to acknowledge the risks associated with the election of Romney, in terms of escalation of the crisis and likelihood of a military attack, and seem to accept the need to negotiate with Obama.

Obama’s preferred roadmap, the dual track strategy of dialogue and coercion, was  re-affirmed right after his re-election. On  November 14th, he renewed the 33-year-old state of emergency with Iran – a 1979 measure that authorizes US presidents to use broad powers to impose sanctions and take other steps to face “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy”. At the same time he stated that there still is a “window of opportunity” to use diplomacy to resolve the concerns over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

 Re-starting serious negotiations has never seemed a closer target. According to the latest report, a new round of nuclear talks might be scheduled next December, after the last stages of US electoral campaign forced the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to suspend negotiations for about six months.

Prior to the US elections, Netanyahu signaled a willingness to wait until the summer of 2013 before taking any unilateral measure toward Iran, giving Obama some room of maneuver to persevere with diplomacy. Nevertheless, the American president has only about five months before Ahmadinejad’s second term comes to an end and Iran embroils in its own presidential race.

Registration for presidential elections in Iran will start in April 2013: it is early to forecast dynamics and the names of the candidates. No matter who will win the elections in Iran, the ultimate decision-maker on security issues remains the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

During the last set of nuclear talks, between April and June 2012, the Obama administration acknowledged the role played by Khamenei in the nuclear decision-making process. However, this may not be enough when a new president will be elected in Iran, depending on his attitude towards the West and his political capital at home. Furthermore, Iran’s electoral campaign will likely create domestic instability. These will be the first presidential elections since the controversial 2009 votes , and all political factions will strongly battle for power. The early warning of the Supreme Leader to avoid making political differences public proves the regime is aware of the risks of internal divisions that will take place throughout the electoral campaign.

All these factors combined will challenge any peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis. This is why Obama will likely try to take advantage of the short window of opportunity.

The latest violence in Gaza risks undermining this process, complicating the  calculus of regional priorities in Washington, at a time when the President would like to move on from the Middle East and re-focus the thrust of his foreign policy agenda towards the Asia-Pacific.