Despite yesterday's New York Times article declaring that "Iran's Supreme Leader Rebuffs Obama", I think there are some encouraging signs that relations between Iran and the US are going to get better.
Throughout his campaign for the Presidency, Barack Obama maintained a unique perspective on what the United State's relations with Iran should be. While many disagreed with President Bush's decision to dub Iran a member of "The Axis of Evil," there were few mainstream politicians who openly advocated the renewal of direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which had been terminated after the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. As a result, Obama's statement that as President he would be open to direct talks with Iranian leaders, without pre-conditions, became debate point during the primary and general campaigns. It was one of the reasons I first became attracted to him as a candidate.
The shift in White House diplomatic rhetoric became apparent not long after his inauguration. Most of the news world was surprised when Obama selected Al Arabiya, an Arabic news station, to conduct his first video interview after the inauguration. When asked about Iran, he maintained the stance of the previous administration in that the United States did not look favorably upon a nuclear weapon-armed Iran, but he also injected a note of conciliatory dialogue.
"Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past -- none of these things have been helpful.This week the White House released a video on the beginning the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, which marks the beginning of spring and the new year. The message heavily emphasized a language of respect for the Iranian history and culture.
But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."Al Arabiya interview - 26/01/09
A full transcript of the interview can be found here.
Of course, a rhetoric of respect on one side does not mean that the diplomatic issues that have divided the US and Iran are going to somehow resolve themselves. For one thing, Iranian leaders themselves have been fairly reticent in their response to the message. President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei both pointed out in this week that US and US engineered sanctions against Iran remain in place, preventing the trade of many goods that would be extremely beneficial to Iran's economy. Khamenei, before a crowd of ten thousand in the city of Mashaad, declared that “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice,” and, unless you count the American invitation of Iran to a panel on Afghanistan, he's right. While its rhetoric has shifted substantially, White House policy towards is essentially unchanged in these first few weeks of the Obama Administration.
Then again, this is how things get started.
In his speech Khamenei also addressed the American nation saying, “should you change, our behavior will change, too.” One way to look at this situation is to see it as a mirror of the last 30 years of policy in which each side refused to budge until the other backed down. But I choose to emphasize, with the coming of a new regime, the possibility that United States is on the verge of a paradigm shift. Obama's foreign policy has always projected itself as much more conciliatory than its predecessor's - a magnanimous gesture such as reducing sanctions, or suggesting the establishment of embassies, is very much in keeping with the political image Obama has generated for himself thus far.
Ultimately, I am aware that Obama has yet to radically evolve the way the United States and Iran interact, and I'm conscious that he probably will be unable make a significant change until after the economic crisis at home has been resolved. But, in seeing all the political groundwork-laying work that the Obama administration has performed, I am fairly "hopeful" that there will be an evolution in the way the White House does international relations. Obama has talked the talk - now let's see the "change" he intends to bring to American Foreign Policy.