By David McKeeby, Staff Writer,
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.
Iranian newspaper headline says: "Obama Victory with Promise of
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
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.
What actions should President Obama take to
engage with Iran? Comment on America.gov's
U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP)
engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values
to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
... Payvand News - 02/03/09 ... --