Although President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not explicitly say it, there was little doubt the Iranians preferred a “President” Barack Obama to his Republican rival, when he spoke to a select few of us at a breakfast briefing in a New York hotel, arranged on the sidelines of last September’s UN General Debate. This predilection for Mr Obama was confirmed by the congratulatory note written by the Iranian President to his newly-elected counterpart just days after his victory.
As is now known, President Obama felt compelled to respond: first, during his recently televised interview with al-Arabiya, where he foreshadowed a different, friendlier approach in his Iran policy, followed by reports in a British newspaper, the Guardian, that an apposite reply is being framed by the US State department, addressed to the Iranian public and to be sent to the Supreme Leader, “or released as an open letter”.
While this administration’s intention to repair relations with Iran is desirous - if the newspaper’s report holds truth - the method of reconstruction is flawed and dangerous for a number of reasons. And no one should know better than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s efforts to mend ties with Iran during his presidency through public gestures failed tragically, including a call for normalising relations by then-Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, or a quasi-apology by President Clinton at a formal dinner in 1999, where he proclaimed to the Iranian people that “you have a right to be angry at something my country … did to you 50 or 60 or 150 years ago”.
Better relations with Tehran, however, did not follow. Instead, the virtual dialogue that had begun between the two states, supported by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, was impaired. Iran soon became a battleground between the hardliners and reformists, and the powerful radicals squelched all rapprochement efforts.
Undismayed, Ms Albright made a final effort in 2000 during a speech to the Iranian-American Council, where she issued a formal apology and offered to work with Iran in bringing down “the wall of mistrust”. This time, too, President Khatami was unable to make supportive comments; the matter fell dead when Ayatollah Khameini gave his negative response to a crowd in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city.
Today, Washington may be on the threshold of repeating mistakes, if it decides to release an open letter or make any public gestures. Analyst Geoffrey Kemp, writing in The Washington Quarterly in 2001, argued that formal speeches announcing unilateral measures at improving relations have failed in Tehran: Iranians do not appreciate any surprises.
Moreover, as the past reveals, groups on both sides - neoconservatives and the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and radicals in Tehran - are determined to destroy efforts to improve relations. This makes it all the more imperative for state department leaks to be plugged - such as the Guardian scoop - and all diplomatic efforts to be made in secrecy, until the peace process has gathered irreversible momentum, and mutual trust and confidence has developed.
I remember during my trip to Iran in June last year, reading censorious responses in the Iranian media to an early rumour suggesting the establishment of an American interests section in Tehran (a de facto embassy: the plan to establish a diplomatic presence in Tehran by stationing US diplomats there. At the moment the Americans are operating through the Swiss embassy) - which, mind you, was a good initiative, but one that miscarried, partly because it was prematurely exposed to the vicissitudes of the dynamic political landscapes in both capitals.
President Obama must, therefore, temper his urge to fix this uneasy relationship until a more opportune time. Iran will have presidential elections later this year: not only will the anti-Israel/West rhetoric get louder, negating any fledgling peace process, but it may also be wise to wait until a new head of government has been chosen before ascertaining the next move.
Equally important, there is the uncertainty of a positive response from Iran, let alone the chance of a establishing durable and cordial relations, on the back of Israel’s incursion into Gaza, especially after America, the Jewish state’s strongest ally, watched on for 24 days. The Palestinian cause resonates moderately with the Iranian public and it could be politically inexpedient for Tehran’s conservatives, who are in power, to forge a friendship with America in an election year. Sure, President Ahmadinejad did gesture to Washington, but that was only to test the waters, and it was before the deadly attack on Gaza.
Also, any relationship with America would mean giving up support for Hamas and Hezbollah. At a time when the Israel threat has not been averted, Tehran can ill afford to lose two allies it could utilise in war, whose support is valuable at a time when Tehran challenges the international community’s efforts to constrain its nuclear program, and whose help is crucial in projecting Iranian power in the region.
Instead, President Obama must avoid any bombastic gestures towards Iran, encourage covert, mid-level contact with Tehran, while concomitantly, focusing on solving the Israel-Palestinian crisis together with improving relations with Syria.
In today’s prickly geo-political environment, the chances of negotiations with Iran failing are high. It is likely that Iran will, inevitably, be put on the backburner for a few years like previous US administrations did, Tehran will be forced to invigorate its efforts to enrich uranium, and the region could further destabilise.