8 November 2012, 16:16

Obama’s second term and what it means for American policy towards Iran

Obama’s second term and what it means for American policy towards Iran

With the US president being re-elected and few alterations expected in the White House, the foreign policy issues that the second Obama administration will have to face also remain largely unchanged. How to tackle the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear ambitions was a recurring question throughout Obama’s first term. The challenge now seems likely to continue to haunt the US administration.

Thirty-three years ago the United States broke off relations with Iran months after an Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed Shah and swept Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Islamist students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for more than a year. Since then, tensions between the two countries have never ended.

With the coming of the new century, the conflict was exacerbated further as Iran invested in developing its very own nuclear program. Iran claims it is for research purposes and peaceful energy, though Western nations share the fear the Islamic republic is determined to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East profoundly by developing nuclear weapons. For the US, that also means Iran posing a grave threat to Israel, the US’s primary ally in the non-democratic region.

Following the line of what is already seen as ‘traditional hostility’; on Wednesday Iran gave a rather tepid reaction to the re-election of President Barack Obama, cautioning the US that the outcome would not lead to a normalization of ties. At the same time, Iran is reported not to have ruled out the hopes that are presumably vested in continuing negotiations. Two weeks ago the New York Times reported that “the United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.” 

Now that the elections are over, President Obama is expected to push on with the process of negotiating with Iranian leaders. Not only should he not expect the negotiating process to be easy, but he also should be aware that the window of opportunity for reaching a viable compromise is only open until March 20, Iran’s New Year. After that, the country will begin its own election season and negotiations are highly likely to stall as election paralysis kicks in. And so, the upcoming round of negotiations might well be Obama’s last chance to resolve the conflict without resorting to military force. 

On the other side of the divide, negotiations might also be the last best shot at reaching agreement before US-led sanctions profoundly hurt the Iranian regime. Thus, for Iran it could be one of the last attempts to trade minimal concessions for sanctions relief. 

While both Washington and Tehran believe that they will be negotiating from positions of strength, the reality is that neither the US nor Iran hold trump cards. Indeed, the US is highly unlikely to succumb to Iranian claims of the ‘peaceful atom’, and the Iranian regime will not be forced to capitulate by a series of US-led sanctions. In this situation, the only real solution for Obama is to come up with a compromise based on reciprocity and proportionality, which can then be translated into a delicate balancing act between Iran making concessions on enrichment and the lifting of US sanctions. 

Crucially, however, since the power to lift sanctions actually rests with the US Congress, even negotiations could stall if Obama fails to come up with a persuasive case back home. For now, there is a near consensus on Capitol Hill that sanctions should not be lifted. Consequently, the other struggle over Iranian sanctions, this time between the White House and Congress, will play a critical role in the outcome of negotiations with Iran. 

In the even that, as seems likely, President Obama is unable to lift the sanctions, he might instead try to freeze them in return for Iran freezing its nuclear program for a period of time. However, even if such a mutual compromise is reached, it is unlikely to last long enough to prevent a military conflict. 

Other than sanctions, President Obama can be expected to challenge Iran’s leaders with a well-articulated human rights agenda as a part of the negotiation process. Roya Boroumand, executive director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, and an expert in the field, suggests; “for too many years, the United States has dealt with Iran's nuclear ambitions and its use of violence in foreign policy independently from the abysmal human rights situation inside the country. Thus, now might be the time for a long-term strategy that would seriously challenge Iranian leadership by shifting the focus to their human rights record.”

Ms Boroumand continues, saying that the Obama administration can be expected to “work with its allies to include specific rights-related demands in any negotiations with Iran. A human rights focused strategy might be a long-term investment that would be beneficial to both the American and the Iranian people. The diversity of voices in Iran and a more representative government will be more effective in moderating Iran's foreign policy than any attack on its nuclear installations.”

Ultimately, however, the deal that will be sealed after the coming series of negotiations, with or without a human rights clause, is destined to be limited and is not likely to last. Admittedly, the more comprehensive it is, the more stable it will be but it cannot be ruled out that President Obama may have to make a fateful choice on potential US military action against Iran in the very near future.

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