By David McKeeby, Staff Writer, America.gov
Obama signals new American willingness to engage Tehran
Washington - President Obama wants to bring change to nearly 30 years of strained ties between Iran and the United States.
"If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," Obama said in a January 27 interview with the Saudi satellite channel al-Arabiya.
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 after militants backed by Iran's revolutionary government seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days. Since then, relations have been further chilled by Iran's support of international terrorist organizations destabilizing the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and Hamas; the Iranian government's record of human rights abuses against its own citizens; and Iran's internationally controversial nuclear program, which its leaders claim is aimed at developing nuclear energy, but a growing number of nations - including the United States - suspects is a covert drive to develop nuclear weapons.
Obama acknowledged these challenges, pledging that his administration will lay out a framework over the next several months for how the United States will proceed with Iran. "The Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization," Obama said. "We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful." (See "Obama Pledges New American Partnership in Middle East.")
While the governments of Switzerland and Pakistan long have served as official intermediaries between the countries, U.S. and Iranian envoys have cooperated in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and more recently have held discussions on the future of Iraq, Tehran's neighbor and one-time regional rival when it was under the rule of dictator Saddam Hussein. But experts agree that building on these limited contacts will prove a daunting challenge to the new administration.
An Iranian woman on a Tehran street holds a newspaper with an article about Obama
In recent years, many former U.S. officials and academic experts have called for reassessing America's diplomatic approach to Iran. The Iraq Study Group - a bipartisan commission chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton - released a 2006 report urging the United States to enter into direct talks with Iran and regional ally Syria on stabilizing Iraq and the broader Middle East. As a senator, Obama supported the group's findings, and two of its members serve in his administration: CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served briefly in the group before returning to government.
"The regional and nuclear ambitions of Iran continue to pose enormous challenges to the U.S.," Gates told a Senate panel January 27, stressing two "nonmilitary" factors that may shape Iran's future course: economic disruptions caused by low oil prices and relations with a new, democratic and increasingly self-sufficient Iraq.
Breaking the diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear ambitions could provide an opening, experts say. In 2006, Iran suspended the International Atomic Energy Agency's authority to conduct no-notice inspections of its nuclear sites, and it refused to answer questions about weapons-related elements of its research efforts.
Since then, the U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on government agencies, Iranian officials, banks and other institutions linked to the program. The council's five permanent members - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States - have joined with Germany to form the "P5+1," which has worked to convince Iran to suspend enrichment and come to the negotiating table.
"We remain deeply concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to the region, indeed to the United States and the entire international community," said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who reiterated the administration's commitment to "direct diplomacy" with Tehran. "We will look at what is necessary and appropriate with respect to maintaining pressure toward that goal of ending Iran's nuclear program." (See "American Envoy Pledges Renewed Commitment to United Nations.")
Representatives from the P5+1 group are scheduled to meet in Germany on February 4. In the near term, international deliberations over Iran's nuclear program may provide further clues on how U.S. policymakers will proceed toward the goal of engaging diplomatically with Iran.
"The dialogue and diplomacy must go hand in hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council, and its continued refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase," Rice said.
"There is a clear opportunity for the Iranians, as the president expressed in his interview, to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters January 28. "Whether or not that hand becomes less clenched is really up to them."
A White House transcript of President Obama's interview with al-Arabiya is available on America.gov.
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