Obama's Iran Initiative

Washington and Tehran Should Focus on Common Interests

If the US and Iran start by focusing on common interests like the Middle East, they should be able to tackle the more controversial issues, says Peter Philipp. However, Tehran's ideologists are standing in the way

Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
Iran's reaction to US President Barack Obama's recent offer was a call for practical steps and criticism of the re-imposition of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic

​​ Barack Obama is getting serious. He had already expressed his readiness to negotiate with Iran, and now the American president has used the Iranian New Year's festival "Nourouz" as an opportunity to offer Tehran a fresh start.

Obama may have praised Iran's cultural heritage, but his compliments were not the most important aspect of his address. After all, similar things were also heard from George W. Bush, who treated Iran as part of his "Axis of Evil."

More important were the openness and clarity with which Obama explained to the Iranians that there are differences of opinion between the two countries, but that he's prepared to deal with these issues diplomatically.

At eye level

photo: AP
Positive reception on the ground: an Iranian woman watching Obama's video message on TV

​​ Obama's strategy seems to be to approach Iran as an equal. The president has recognized that condescending advice or even orders and sanctions won't achieve anything. On the contrary, they can backfire, with the other side feeling duped, disrespected and disdained. Which can only make them clam up.

Many Iranians will be open to Obama's words. They have been fixated on the US for a long time and have been eager to restart relations. However, in Tehran's political circles, even the most reconciliatory statements from Washington will be met with mistrust and at least initial rejection - as Iran's highest leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demonstrated on Saturday, March 21.

Teheran reacting restrainedly

photo: AP
Iran good - USA bad. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and the ideologues in the Islamic Republic appear to fear that friendlier relations with the USA could undermine their state doctrine

​​In a New Year's speech in Mashhad, Khamenei criticized the US president, saying Obama couldn't wish the Iranians a happy new year, while at the same time accusing them of supporting terrorism and violence.

The Iranian leader didn't want to understand that these were the differences of opinion that Obama had referred to: Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and the suspicion that Tehran is building nuclear weapons.

Just a day earlier, Khamenei had celebrated the development of Iran's nuclear program as the greatest success of the past few years and it's unlikely he'll change his mind on this issue. But the question remains whether he'll give the green light for direct contact with the Americans in various matters, no matter how controversial the standpoints between Washington and Tehran may be.

Common interests as starting point?

The two can and should try to build on their commonalities. Both the US and Iran, for example, have similar interests in Iraq and - even more so - in Afghanistan. Both countries should try to calm down and stop making trouble - neither for neighbour Iran nor for the rest of the world.

If these common interests can be worked out - perhaps at the upcoming Afghanistan Conference in The Hague - why shouldn't the more controversial issues be tackled after that?

A lot depends on mutual trust and there seem to be a shortage in that area. There's a cogent reason for this, particularly in Tehran: The ideologists of the "Islamic Republic" apparently fear that rapprochement with the US could undermine their state doctrine.

For them, it's easier with an enemy like the US.

Peter Philipp

© Deutsche Welle 2009

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's Middle east expert and chief correspondent. He was based in Jerusalem as a correspondent for 23 years.

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