Center for Arms Control

by Travis Sharp [contact information]

U.S. Foreign Policy toward Iran in the Obama Era

Published by the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, Italy (June 2009)

Introduction reprinted below. Download the full article online (PDF, 6 pages)

Current hostility between the United States and Iran runs deep because of the historical grievances each side brings to the conflict. Many Americans are unaware that in 1953, the CIA helped engineer a coup against the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Iranians typically view this event as the beginning of bad blood between the nations. In contrast, Americans who do not know this history believe the 1979 Islamic revolution and seizure of 52 American hostages precipitated the animosity. It should come as no surprise that countries that view the past so differently also see the future in starkly different terms.

A negotiated bargain between Washington and Tehran will not be easy to achieve because the two nations’ interests fundamentally diverge. American security interests in the Middle East revolve around access to petroleum resources, the elimination of terrorist threats, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and protecting Israel. On each of these core objectives, Iran seems to stand athwart U.S. goals. But the opposite is also true. Iran’s primary interests are regime survival and regional hegemony. The United States and Israel appear to be the biggest threats to these ambitions.

The next 18 months will prove critically important to U.S.-Iranian relations, which currently stand at an impasse. First, newly-elected President Barack Obama, whose last name in Farsi sounds like the phrase “he is with us,” entered office having pledged to engage Iran using “aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions.” This openness to negotiate directly is a marked change from the policies of President George W. Bush, whose administration tried to isolate and ignore Iran. Second, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have won a second presidential term in very controversial fashion. The spirited campaign and post-election violence demonstrate that there are those in Iran who yearn for change, and the determination of these dissenters may lead the powerful clerics to consider softening some of their more oppressive policies. Third, U.S. intelligence agencies believe that, should it choose to accelerate its enrichment activities, Iran will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015.

With time running out before Iran acquires a breakout enrichment capability, the most difficult part of developing a nuclear weapon, Obama and Ahmadinejad have until the end of 2010 to achieve progress on key differences. After a year and a half, both countries may be forced back into more antagonistic postures by long-standing domestic and international political influences that are beyond their control. Despite seemingly intractable differences, this paper will argue that there are reasons to be guardedly optimistic about the future of U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations. Though burdened with political constraints on its freedom of action, the Obama administration already has made overtures to Iran that may appear merely symbolic but have historically proven successful at breaking the ice in preparation for larger diplomatic initiatives.

Travis Sharp

Travis Sharp is the Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He has published articles on defense policy in scholarly journals, internet magazines, and local newspapers, and has appeared on or been quoted in media venues such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, CNN, and Al Jazeera.

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