Since his election in the US presidential race, President-elect Obama has turned the world's attention to his election promises for major changes in the American foreign policy. These expectations for change are more remarkable in the areas where US policy has failed in the past due to miscalculated or wrong policies. Given the major role that Iran plays in its region and its advanced nuclear program, the country looms large in the foreign policy agenda of the new US administration.

Barak Obama pledged during his election campaign that he is willing to negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Since then, there have been formidable efforts made by the opponents of open dialogue with Iran to thwart such initiatives. At the same time, there are influential proponents of changes in US policy and those who support engagement with Iran. It is left to see in the coming months, if not weeks, which side will succeed to push their stance forward and how committed Obama is to changing the policy with regard to relations with Iran.

Anti- and Pro-Iranian Postures

As is customary in the US political system, politicians, scholars and other practitioners present their viewpoints on different political issues to the incoming president. The lobbyists and other influential groups also take advantage of this opportunity to promote their interests. As past experience indicates the issue of relations with Iran raises much attention and anxiety among many groups in the United States as well as many foreign countries who find the status of relations between Iran and the US crucial to their interests. Therefore, it was not atypical that, when Obama declared his policy and a new approach toward Iran, some groups criticized it and questioned its reliability. After the victory of Obama in the elections, the prospect of implementing his campaign promises became more serious than before. Therefore, the opponents of dialogue with Iran changed their tactics and called for the negotiations to be postponed until after the Iranian presidential elections, which are scheduled for June 2009. Their argument is that negotiations with Iran at this time will only increase President Ahmadinejad's chance in the upcoming elections.

It seems that the main objective behind that proposition is to circumvent the present, prevailing attitudes in both Iran and the US that both of their individual interests are best served through a dialogue, with a prospect of resolving their differences in a substantive manner after three decades. The opponents of dialogue apparently hope that by applying delaying tactics with regard to the very volatile political situation in the Middle East, it would be only a matter of time before verbal attacks by one side against the other side (especially at the presidential level by Obama or Ahmadinejad) would dampen any interest for serious dialogue. This explains well why Simon Peres, the president of Israel, urges Obama to delay talks with Iran, saying, "I hope that it won't be done before the elections (in Iran) because it may affect the results of the elections." As seen in Israel, efforts by the US to normalize relations with Iran would be a signal that America is willing to live with a nuclear Iran.

Attempts to engage Iran may also find significant opposition from other US friends and allies. Some Europeans are nervous that the US might act unilaterally and develop a strategic partnership with Iran that ignores their interests. Conservative Arab countries in the region are also uneasy, fearing that a US strategic deal with Iran would dent their present status, which has been attained mostly in the shadow of unfriendly relations between Iran and the US over the past 30 years.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are the advocates of Iran-US dialogue. They acknowledge the new opportunity for the US to reorient its policies and to rectify some of its major past blunders. They believe that Obama’s presidency provides the opportunity for a new opening with Iran; while there is also an unprecedented receptive mood in Iran for a dialogue with the US. They point to the fact that Obama's successful election has created an unprecedented positive climate in Iran toward the US and the hope for change in US policy.

Thus, the argument of advocates of a dialogue with Iran revolves around the idea that the US should seize this opportunity to engage Iran in a comprehensive dialogue; not only on Iran's nuclear program but also concerning the agenda of other strategic issues such as establishing a security system in the Persian Gulf and issues related to peace and stability in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The nuclear issue

The events of 9/11 have provided an opportunity for the US to establish its presence in Afghanistan and Iraq following the defeat of the regimes of Taliban and Saddam. Both of those regimes were considered major foes of Iran. That process, as well as ensuing events, promoted Iran's strategic stature in the region and beyond. Under those circumstances and apparently in a move to contain Iran, the nuclear program of Iran was portrayed as a potential threat to international security. In that endeavor, Iran's nuclear program was referred to the UN Security Council and three resolutions were adopted in an attempt to internationalize the issue. However, those policies failed to stop Iran in pursuing its nuclear program, which it considered to be legitimate and in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Under these conditions, the proponents of a dialogue with Iran pointed to the failure of previous US and Western policies to contain and isolate Iran. They maintained that a continuation of those failed policies would only bring Iran closer to nuclear weapons capability while prolongation of the present trend would pose increasing risk of a catastrophic clash with the country. Hence, the advocates of negotiation with Iran say that efforts should be directed toward discouraging Iran from moving toward nuclear weapons and not to deny its access to nuclear technology or fuel cycle. Furthermore, it is reasoned that Iran would be more responsive to US concerns and more cooperative in reaching a compromise on its nuclear program safeguards if the US would change or abandon its old policy of intimidation and threat toward Iran. For this purpose, Iran must be recognized as an ancient and great civilization of no less status than the US or Europe.

They further contend that nuclear weapons are not offensive and that their use is mainly for deterrence. Therefore, in a worst-case scenario, even if Iran were to succeed in developing nuclear weapons, they would not pose a threat toward the US or its allies since they could easily be deterred by a massive US nuclear retaliation. As for the criticism of those who say that Iran might transfer its nuclear weapons to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah or that a nuclear Iran might prompt other regional countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Turkey to follow the same path; it is said that past experience shows that nuclear states are very keen to preserve their monopoly of their weapons. It is also pointed out that the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons during the past 40 years has not induced other countries in the region to go nuclear. Hence, that should not raise the alarm against Iran who insists that its nuclear program is merely for peaceful purposes.


Obama's Iran policy is going to be one of the most crucial and important issues on the agenda of the new US administration. His promise for change, if implemented in his Iran policy, may bring about a wide array of advantages for US policy, ranging from prospects of cooperation in the establishment of a Persian Gulf security system to other issues related to regional stability in Iran's neighborhood. But the most immediate and positive aspect of a new policy and approach toward Iran could be expected to concern its nuclear program.

The present suspicions surrounding Iran's program can only be removed through a dialogue and understanding between the two main contending parties, namely Iran and the US. Obama has pledged to initiate that policy, but he has faced mounting pressure from neo- conservatives and Jewish lobbyists in the United States as well many foreign countries who perceive that the new American policy might harm their interests. Under these circumstances, it will be interesting to witness how Obama will take advantage of this historical opportunity to break the deadlock in US- Iran relations, which may also have positive implications for the US policy in some other major regional issues, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine