USA – Iran Relations

"Charm Offensive" to End the Ice Age

Obama's video message to the Iranians contained an appeal for renewed dialogue with Teheran's political leaders. But who would be the most likely candidate for entering into such a dialogue with Washington from the Iranian perspective? Answers from Katajun Amirpur in Teheran

US President Barack Obama (photo: AP/DW)
Praise for Iranian art, culture, and literature: US President Obama strikes a cordial tone

​​ When he broke into Farsi, he instantly won over hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Barack Obama had congratulated the Iranians on their spring festival of Nowruz on 20 March in Persian, and the reaction – at least among Iran's bloggers – was clear-cut: "Why don't we have a president like him?" they asked on the net.

Obama had chosen his words very carefully, striking an engaging tone in his message to the Iranian people: "Over many centuries, your art, your culture and literature have made the world a better and more beautiful place." That went down well.

"Unclench your fist"

As early as his first press conference in office, Obama had raised the prospect of direct diplomatic contacts to the Islamic Republic, provided Teheran was prepared to "unclench its fist".

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad too displayed willingness for talks, at least in principle, in his speech marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on 10 February. However, he said, the USA would have to change its attitude towards Iran's leadership fundamentally and not just tactically.

Ali Khamenei (photo: AP)
Khamenei once again called for a genuine change in US policy. "We will not accept any offer of negotiations that goes together with force," Iran's Supreme Leader declared

​​ Although the reaction to Obama's charm offensive from the religious head of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, was subdued, it was not as martial as usual.

It made no sense, he commented, for Obama to congratulate the Iranians on their new year's festival while the Americans continued to accuse Iran of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons. As long as the US government continued the same policies and directions of the previous 30 years, it would remain the same nation.

Shadows of the past

To this day, both sides find it difficult to make steps towards each other. The 1979 kidnapping of US diplomats by Iranian students, who held them hostage for 444 long days, is still an open wound in American foreign policy. On the Iranian side, anti-Americanism was one of the key pillars of the Islamic Revolution.

And yet for many years there have been voices across the entire ruling spectrum – from reformers to pragmatists all the way to the radicals –that realise Iran cannot afford to feud with the only remaining superpower for ever.

American Hostages 1979 in Teheran (photo: AP)
Open wound for the Americans: the occupation of the US embassy in Teheran and the hostage-taking of 52 American diplomats in November 1979

​​ The former president Mohammad Khatami made a start by giving an interview to the US news channel CNN in 1998, beginning with a long hymn in praise of American civilisation. He then even indirectly apologised for the hostage crisis:

"I do know that the feelings of the great American people have been hurt by the hostage-taking, and of course I regret it. But the feelings of our people were seriously hurt by US policies. And in the heat of the 'revolutionary fervour', things happen which cannot be fully contained or judged according to usual norms."

Criticism of America united the bourgeois, left-wing and Islamist opposition against the Shah, not least because he had only been able to extend his power after a CIA-sponsored putsch against Mohammad Mossadegh's democratic government in 1953. Resistance against the Americans was a key factor that drove the Iranian people onto the streets in 1978.

First Gulf War and US sanctions

Mohammed Mossadegh during a rally in Iran (photo: Farshad Bayan/DW)
An icon for a national and independent state for many Iranians to this day: Prime Minister Mossadegh was toppled by a CIA-sponsored putsch in 1953

​​ Even after the revolution, the United States did everything in their power to maintain their status as the common enemy binding Iran's national identity: supporting Saddam Hussein when his troops invaded Iran, imposing an embargo, shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988 and decorating the military men responsible, and supporting the Mujahedin in Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration seemed to have understood Khatami's overture and openly considered no longer extending its sanctions against Iran. However Khatami's domestic opponents leaped on his apology as a chance to attack him. "That was not what the Iranian people had hoped to hear," wrote the disgruntled conservative newspaper Dschomhuri-ye Eslami.

Nevertheless, there were further hopes for détente following 9/11. Even the conservatives condemned the terrorist attacks resolutely, and Teheran offered Washington support to fight the Taliban.

New confrontation

Things only got difficult when the USA signalled that Teheran ought to join the anti-terrorism coalition. Even now, the two states have still not found a common definition of what exactly falls under terrorism.

Mir Hossein Moussavi during a press conference (photo: dpa)
Mir Hossein Moussavi – a political compromise candidate in Iran for détente with the USA?

​​ Unlike the United States, Iran regards the Palestinian struggle against the Israelis as legitimate resistance against an illegitimate occupation rather than terrorism. In the end, Washington simply placed Iran on the axis of evil alongside Iraq and North Korea. But it didn't stop there: George W. Bush openly called for regime change in Iran.

The fact that Khamenei did not immediately show a euphoric reaction to Obama's Nowruz wishes does not mean reconciliation is entirely ruled out. Even last year, Khamenei declared: "Breaking off relations to the USA has previously been one of the principles of Iranian policy. But we have never said that this interruption is for ever."

Ironically enough, a thaw in relations with the USA now appears more likely under Ahmadinejad's government than under a reform-oriented leadership such as one led by Khatami – something that seemed unthinkable only two weeks ago.

Perspectives for bilateral relations

Whereas the reformers would always be accused by the conservatives of selling out to the USA, conservative elements, who are equally in favour of détente but would begrudge the reformers the success, have no such opposition to fear.

This may have been one reason why Mohammad Khatami has now retracted his candidacy, knowing that he would be an extremely polarising figure as president – which would make many things impossible for him. Mir Hossein Moussavi, who Khatami introduced as an alternative to himself, could be a good compromise candidate for this very reason.

Moussavi is associated less with issues such as the rule of law and women's rights than Khatami, who has always been in favour of reform in these areas. Moussavi is seen as much less of a reformer.

Yet that could be to his advantage. Moussavi is someone who doesn't make the conservatives feel they are backed up against the wall, and to whom they will not react as harshly as to Khatami. Fears have been voiced in Iran that there could be a serious domestic confrontation if Khatami were to be voted in.

Khatami prefers to avoid such confrontations, which could end with blood spilled on a grand scale, as he proved during his presidency.

So it was presumably not only fear of a major smear campaign, which had already begun, and intimidation that made him withdraw from the race – but also the idea that more might be achieved with Moussavi at the helm.

Katajun Amirpur

© 2009

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