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Iran's view of Obama

"Iran's view of Obama" Continued...

Radical Islamists, Iraq, and Afghanistan

This brings us to the Hezbollah/Iraq question, which in fact represents two very different issues. Iraq constitutes the greatest potential strategic threat to Iran. This is as ancient as Babylon and Persia, as modern as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Iran wants guarantees that Iraq will never threaten it, and that U.S. forces in Iraq will never pose a threat to Iran. Tehran does not want promises alone; it wants a recognized degree of control over the Iraqi government, or at least negative control that would allow it to stop Baghdad from doing things Iran doesn't want. To achieve this, Iran systematically has built its influence among factions in Iraq, permitting it to block Iraqi policies that Iran regards as dangerous.

The American demand that Iran stop meddling in Iraqi policies strikes the Iranians as if the United States is planning to use the new Baghdad regime to restore the regional balance of power. In fact, that is very much on Washington's mind. This is completely unacceptable to Iran, although it might benefit the United States and the region. From the Iranian point of view, a fully neutral Iraq-with its neutrality guaranteed by Iranian influence-is the only acceptable outcome. The Iranians regard the American demand that Iran not meddle in Iraq as directly threatening Iranian national security.

There is then the issue of Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other radical Islamist groups. Between 1979 and 2001, Iran represented the background of the Islamic challenge to the West: The Shia represented radical Islam. When al-Qaida struck, Iran and the Shia lost this place of honor. Now, al-Qaida has faded and Iran wants to reclaim its place. It can do that by supporting Hezbollah, a radical Shiite group that directly challenges Israel, as well as Hamas-a radical Sunni group-thus showing that Iran speaks for all of Islam, a powerful position in an arena that matters a great deal to Iran and the region. Iran's support for these groups helps it achieve a very important goal at little risk. Meanwhile, the U.S. demand that Iran end this support is not matched by any meaningful counteroffer or by a significant threat.

Moreover, Tehran dislikes the Obama-Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan. That strategy involves talking with the Taliban, a group that Iran has been hostile toward historically. The chance that the United States might install a Taliban-linked government in Afghanistan represents a threat to Iran second only to the threat posed to it by Iraq.

The Iranians see themselves as having been quite helpful to the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as they helped Washington topple both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In 2001, they offered to let U.S. aircraft land in Iran, and assured Washington of the cooperation of pro-Iranian factions in Afghanistan. In Iraq, they provided intelligence and helped keep the Shiite population relatively passive after the invasion in 2003. But Iranians see Washington as having betrayed implicit understandings that in return for these services, the Iranians would enjoy a degree of influence in both countries. And the U.S. opening to the Taliban is the last straw.

Obama's greetings in context

Iran views Obama's New Year greetings within this context. To them, Obama has not addressed the core issues between the two countries. In fact, apart from videos, Obama's position on Iran does not appear different from the Bush position. The Iranian leadership does not see why it should respond more favorably to the Obama administration than it did to the Bush administration. Tehran wants to be very sure that Obama understands that the willingness alone to talk is insufficient; some indications of what is to be discussed and what might be offered are necessary.

Many in the U.S. administration believe that the weak Iranian economy might shape the upcoming Iranian presidential election. Undoubtedly, the U.S. greetings were timed to influence the election. Washington has tried to influence internal Iranian politics for decades, constantly searching for reformist elements. The U.S. hope is that someone might be elected in Iran who is so obsessed with the economy that he would trade away strategic and geopolitical interests in return for some sort of economic aid. There are undoubtedly candidates who would be interested in economic aid, but none who are prepared to trade away strategic interests. Nor could they even if they wanted to. The Iran-Iraq war is burned into the popular Iranian consciousness; any candidate who appeared willing to see a strong Iraq would lose the election. American analysts are constantly confusing an Iranian interest in economic aid with a willingness to abandon core interests. But this hasn't happened, and isn't happening now.

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