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Associated Press/Photo by Vahid Salemi

Iran's view of Obama

Iran | The president's videotaped Persian New Year greeting for the Iranian people was received coldly in Tehran

U.S. President Barack Obama released a video offering Iran congratulations on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday. Israeli President Shimon Peres also offered his best wishes, referring to "the noble Iranian people." The joint initiative was received coldly in Tehran, however. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the video did not show that the United States had shifted its hostile attitude toward Iran.

The video is obviously part of Obama's broader strategy of demonstrating that his administration has shifted U.S. policy, at least to the extent that it is prepared to open discussions with other regimes (with Iran being the hardest and most controversial case). The U.S. strategy is fairly straightforward: Obama is trying to create a new global perception of the United States. Global opinion was that former U.S. President George W. Bush was unwilling to engage with, and listen to, allies or enemies. Obama's view is that that perception in itself harmed U.S. foreign policy by increasing suspicion of the United States. For Obama, offering New Year's greetings to Iran is therefore part of a strategy to change the tone of all aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

Getting Peres to offer parallel greetings was undoubtedly intended to demonstrate to the Iranians that the Israelis would not block U.S. initiatives toward Iran. The Israelis probably were willing to go along with the greetings because they don't expect them to go very far. They also want to show that they were not responsible for their failure, something critical in their relations with the Obama administration.

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The Iranian response is also understandable. The United States has made a series of specific demands on Iran, and has worked to impose economic sanctions on Iran when Tehran has not complied. But Iran also has some fairly specific demands of the United States. It might be useful, therefore, to look at the Iranian view of the United States and the world through its eyes.

From the Iranian point of view, the United States has made two fundamental demands of Iran. The first is that Iran halt its military nuclear program. The second, a much broader demand, is that Iran stop engaging in what the United States calls terrorism. This ranges from support for Hezbollah to support for Shiite factions in Iraq. In return, the United States is prepared to call for a suspension of sanctions against Iran.

For Tehran, however, the suspension of sanctions is much too small a price to pay for major strategic concessions. First, the sanctions don't work very well. Sanctions only work when most powers are prepared to comply with them. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are prepared to systematically comply with sanctions, so there is little that Iran can afford that it can't get. Iran's problem is that it cannot afford much. Its economy is in shambles due more to internal problems than to sanctions. Therefore, in the Iranian point of view, the United States is asking for strategic concessions, yet offering very little in return.

The nuclear question

Meanwhile, merely working on a nuclear device-regardless of how close or far Iran really is from having one-provides Iran with a dramatically important strategic lever. The Iranians learned from the North Korean experience that the United States has a nuclear fetish. Having a nuclear program alone was more important to Pyongyang than actually having nuclear weapons. U.S. fears that North Korea might someday have a nuclear device resulted in significant concessions from the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

The danger of having such a program is that the United States-or some other country-might attack and destroy the associated facilities. Therefore, the North Koreans created a high level of uncertainty as to just how far along they were on the road to having a nuclear device and as to how urgent the situation was, raising and lowering alarms like a conductor in a symphony. The Iranians are following the same strategy. They are constantly shifting from a conciliatory tone to an aggressive one, keeping the United States and Israel under perpetual psychological pressure. The Iranians are trying to avoid an attack by keeping the intelligence ambiguous. Tehran's ideal strategy is maintaining maximum ambiguity and anxiety in the West while minimizing the need to strike immediately. Actually obtaining a bomb would increase the danger of an attack in the period between a successful test and the deployment of a deliverable device.

What the Iranians get out of this is exactly what the North Koreans got: disproportionate international attention and a lever on other topics, along with something that could be sacrificed in negotiations. They also have a chance of actually developing a deliverable device in the confusion surrounding its progress. If so, Iran would become invasion- and even harassment-proof thanks to its apparent instability and ideology. From Tehran's perspective, abandoning its nuclear program without substantial concessions, none of which have materialized as yet, would be irrational. And the Iranians expect a large payoff from all this.

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