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The year of Iran in the White House - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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There are many indicators to suggest that this year will be the year of Iran in the White House, with all the repercussions that will have on our region. The latest indicator comes in the form of the leaks about the so-called “Iran-Syria deal”, currently being considered by the Obama administration, with the aim of moving on both fronts. This begins with reaching an understanding with Russia on Syria for the departure of al-Assad and his inner circle, being replaced by a transitional government of “moderate” Sunnis and Alawites. As for Iran, the deal is being marketed as a new initiative from Washington to engage in direct dialogue with the Iranians about their nuclear program, on the basis that the alternative would be to go down the line of tighter sanctions and a covert and cyber war whilst retaining the option for a military strike, which would become more probable over time.

Those promoting this deal see something in it for all parties concerned. America does not want to embark on direct military intervention in Syria, whilst it is wary of the presence of jihadists and radical Islamists in the battlefields against the al-Assad regime. Russia is now convinced of the impossibility of al-Assad remaining in power, but the Russians do not want to look as if they have received a new blow from the West, which they claim deceived them in Libya, and therefore the deal for al-Assad to leave and be replaced by a transitional government including Alawites and Sunnis will be an acceptable way out. As for Iran, it does not want to lose everything with the expected departure of its ally in Damascus, and the proposed deal opens the door with Washington and at the same time enables the Iranians to say that they took part in arrangements for the Syrian transitional phase.

The reality is that Obama, by launching this expected new initiative towards Iran, has returned to the same path he inaugurated in his first term four years ago, albeit with changes imposed by the different conditions in the region now, including the events in Syria and the continuation of Iran’s nuclear program despite sanctions and cyber warfare. In his early days in the White House in 2009, Obama began to send signals to Iran to engage in a “constructive dialogue”, open on all issues of dispute between the two countries. This was followed by a direct message to the “Iranian leadership” and the Iranian people to mark the Persian New Year, calling for a dialogue based on mutual respect. Then, in the middle of that year, Obama announced his administration’s willingness to engage in dialogue without preconditions to overcome decades of mistrust and tension that has prevailed in US-Iranian relations ever since the Iranian Revolution, the fall of the Shah’s regime and the hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran.

Yet Obama’s initiatives faltered and failed to make a breakthrough in relations. They did not resolve the most important issue, namely Iran’s nuclear program, or other heated issues for that matter, despite talk of “limited understandings” on Afghanistan and Iraq. Events at the time also contributed to the downfall of this strategy, including the severely-repressed Green Revolution in Iran, which prompted the US administration to criticize the Iranian leadership. These criticisms increased with the lack of tangible progress on the nuclear front, and the publication of intelligence reports in Washington revealing that Iran would be in a position to cross the “tipping point” and be able to produce a nuclear weapon by 2014 or 2015 at the latest.

Obama’s strategy faced heavy criticism at home and abroad, and questions about its objectives and modest results. There were even those with the opinion that he had sent the wrong message to the Iranian leadership, encouraging them to adopt a more radical path in the region and making them work towards their expansion and interference in various directions, including fuelling conflicts and tensions. This reading may not be too far from the reality, especially with the US withdrawal from Iraq and the growing Iranian interference there with the rise of Tehran’s allies, along with the strong emergence of the Iranian-Syrian axis on the scene, and the warnings of the so-called “Shiite crescent” which several countries considered a direct threat to the regional balance. Faced with increasing internal and external pressure, and Obama’s frustration at not being able to achieve a breakthrough with Tehran via his dialogue initiatives, America’s discourse began to change and take a tougher line in the direction of strengthening sanctions against Iran and its leadership, in order to disable its nuclear program. This was an alternative that the Obama administration favored over military intervention, which was considered highly dangerous.

So why is Obama today returning to a policy that even his supporters admit did not succeed in dissuading Tehran from continuing its efforts to accelerate its nuclear program?

Perhaps, in his second term, Obama feels more liberated from the pressures faced by any president thinking of re-running for the White House, and therefore he wants to give a second and perhaps final chance to the policy of “positive dialogue”. This is in the hope that it will achieve better results than in the past, especially with the changes brought about by the Arab Spring and the sense that Iran may be on the verge of losing its most important regional ally as the Bashar al-Assad regime’s grip loosens in Syria, and what this means for its allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. But more importantly than that, the Obama administration may now feel that its options are limited because the hourglass indicates that Iran is soon going to cross the tipping point in its nuclear program. Based on intelligence estimates and reports, the economic pressures and sanctions, in addition to the cyber-attacks, may have slowed down the Iranian nuclear program but they have not stopped it, and now the Iranian leadership seem to be accelerating their nuclear pace.

There is also another factor pushing Obama to try and experiment with the policy of dialogue with Tehran one last time, namely the repercussions of the economic and financial crisis on America and the global economy as a whole. This has made Washington hesitant and even worried about the cost of entering into a new war, the possibilities of which are more distinct with the likelihood of Netanyahu’s victory in the upcoming Israeli elections. There are those who think that Obama has strengthened his stance with the nomination of John Kerry for the next US Secretary of State, and the possibility of nominating Chuck Hagel for the Ministry of Defense, both of whom have declared their support for the policy of dialogue with Tehran, but not excluding the military option as a last resort.

Whatever the way forward for the US administration, the repercussions will be great and no one in our region can ignore this.

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's former deputy editor and senior editor-at-large.

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