Obama and Iran

Iranian men look at newspapers bearing news and pictures of US elected president Barack Obama in Tehran on November 5, 2008. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

by Suzanne DiMaggio

NEW YORK, November 5, 2008 – While talking to an Iranian official in Tehran earlier this year, he reminded me of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fondness for comparing the relationship of the United States and Iran to the relationship of the wolf and the lamb. But the official went on to add his own twist, "Nearly 30 years have passed, and we are not that lamb anymore, and maybe the US is not the same wolf it once was." His point was that Iran no longer feels the deep inequality with the US that it has in the past and, as such, it may be time to try engagement.

Over the past three decades, five American presidents have struggled to figure out what to do about Iran, and all five have failed. As US President-elect Barack Obama and his advisors assess their foreign policy priorities, they will encounter the immediate challenge of addressing Iran’s nuclear program and its growing strategic importance in the Middle East and South Asia.

They will need to quickly face up to the reality that in order to pursue US interests in the region, including stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan which is inconceivable without some level of cooperation from Tehran, the current standoff between the US and Iran cannot go on. If they do not want to repeat the failures of past administrations, they will be well advised to do what none of Mr. Obama’s predecessors have tried. They should make a strategic decision to engage Iran without any pre-conditions in discussions on a broad range of issues of significance to both sides. During his candidancy, Mr. Obama said of Iran that, "For us not to be in a conversation with them doesn’t make sense." Now, he has the opportunity to follow through.

Such an approach does not mean having Mr. Obama sit down with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad anytime soon. A great deal of preparatory work first will be required. This can be carried out by a small team to hammer out the details of a mutually acceptable framework for a wide-ranging and unconditional dialogue that enables both governments to produce some modest initial successes, and gradually build the confidence and trust required to imagine solutions to larger problems. The process could include appointing a US envoy on Iran along the way. Ultimately, direct dialogue at the highest levels should be a key objective.

This will not be easy. At the heart of the American-Iranian conflict is a deep mistrust about the readiness of either nation to tolerate the presence of the other on the world stage. Each nation feels that it has been humiliated and demonized by the other. What is needed is a process that rebuilds trust and communication so that the give-and-take of negotiation is perceived as serving mutual interests rather than as serving up insults to national dignity or identity.

Although it is far from an exact fit, the historic 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by China and the United States which allowed both governments to "agree to disagree" on many issues while committing themselves to dialogue at the highest levels offers a promising model. The effectiveness of this far-sighted framework has been well proven over time.

Dialogue with Iran will inevitably be frustrating and difficult, but it offers the only way to lay out possible grounds for constructive engagement and to devise a strategy for heading off a potentially disastrous confrontation. Dialogue focused on Iran’s nuclear program or on Iraq alone is not going to work. Instead, the US-Iran relationship in its totality and the range of issues of significance to that relationship must be on the table.

Such an approach will require each side to exercise broad restraint and live with the ambiguity of working with a strong adversary to manage very profound differences. Distrust will continue, signals will be confused, setbacks will be frequent, but the results could well lead over time to greater mutual understanding and a learned capacity to work on some of the most pressing problems as the US learned to do with the Soviet Union and China.

Direct diplomatic and strategic engagement between the US and Iran at the highest levels is a proposition yet to be tested. By pursuing this route, Mr. Obama will force Iran to make a choice—does it want to be a state fully integrated in the global economy or does it want to be an "ideology" with rogue status? It’s time we found out.

Suzanne DiMaggio is the Director of the Asian Social Issues Program at the Asia Society.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society