Iran undoubtedly represents one of the key foreign policy issues for U.S. President Barack Obama. And as the world begins to realize the implications of growing Iran-U.S. tensions (and as Obama watches gas prices climb uncomfortably in an election year) his administration is coming under increasing pressure to find a creative policy solution.
Some see Obama as one of the most successful “foreign policy” presidents in recent times – he handled the Arab uprisings calmly, and has countered China’s purported expansion by executing a skillful U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific. But it’s one of his predecessors’ handling of China that might offer him the most useful guide to tackling the looming issue of Iran.
There are a number of parallels between the state of Sino-American relations in the 1960s and 1970s and U.S.-Iran relations today. During the Cold War, the U.S. managed to avoid direct conflict with an emerging Chinese nuclear power, with the Americans choosing the path of caution and the logic of containment and mutually-assured destruction.
But it’s the skillful backdoor diplomacy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger that saw the two nations find common strategic ground. America not only normalized ties, but also gave an implicit security guarantee to the Chinese. The venture was summed up in the so-called “Shanghai Communiqué,” which has served as a foundation for four decades of (generally) mutually-beneficial relations.
The deal also helped eventually pave the way for China’s economic opening, which itself contributed to regional security and boosted international trade. By piercing ideology, the Nixon administration was able to come to a rational agreement with what had until then been seen as a significant and dangerous ideological foe. It’s with this in mind that the Obama administration should consider implementing its own kind of realpolitik, this time with Iran.
Indeed, compared with the ideological zeal of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people, the Iranian regime displays considerable rationality. Despite all its bluster and proxy-based power projection – mainly focused on the peripheries of the Middle East – the Islamic Republic hasn’t in its three decades of existence engaged offensive conventional warfare, nor has it ever sought direct military confrontation with America and other Western powers.
After all, Iran’s ultimate objective – similar to other rising powers throughout history – is two-fold: first, recognition as a status quo regional power; and second, acquisition of a security guarantee from Western powers, especially the United States. Given Tehran’s considerable regional influence, Iran’s support could surely prove an asset in stabilizing Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
On the Iranian side, there have been indications that it’s open to a “Tehran Communiqué” with the United States similar to the offer said to have been made by reformists in the early 2000s. Western sanctions against Iran’s financial and energy sectors are biting hard, so it’s easy to imagine that Iran is increasingly willing to negotiate over its nuclear program. Global insurers are shunning Iranian crude, and the Iranian regime is increasingly struggling to find enough customers for its oil exports. Meanwhile, Iran’s eastern partners, from China to India, have been exploiting Tehran’s isolation by pushing for heavy discounts and barter deals, starving Tehran of both hard currency and high quality commodities.
But sanctions are also placing tremendous costs on the global economy. If the West continues indefinitely to turn the screws, more hawkish elements within the Iranian leadership could gain the upper-hand. It would surely be sensible, then, to be open to reversing sanctions once the regime has started to show signs of flexibility, otherwise the sanctions regime risks taking on a life of its own, something that would only bring the danger of conflict closer.
There are already signs that the Iranian regime is shifting from internal bickering to a more coherent and robust nuclear stance. With recent elections shifting the balance of power toward traditional conservative factions, the top leadership may start to feel more secure over its hold on power – and perhaps more secure about its ability to compromise.
So far, despite considerable pressure to get tougher, Obama has courageously rebuffed Republican Party hawks’ calls for military confrontation and emphasized the importance of diplomacy running its course. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to respond in kind, hailing Obama’s caution over war by stating, “This talk is good talk and shows an exit from illusion.” To sweeten things still further, the Iranians also called for a retrial of an American citizen on death row.
Recent polls also suggest that the majority of Americans favor a diplomatic plan for Iran, favoring Obama’s current approach and the shunning of the military option. It’s not yet clear whether Obama is willing to push the envelope just that little bit further by contemplating a grand bargain with Tehran, but the glimmer of an opportunity seems there.
Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].