New America Media, News Analysis,
William O. Beeman, Posted: Nov 12, 2008
Editor's note: Diplomacy between the United States and Iran has been at a standstill. President-elect Barack Obama has a great opportunity to end the cold war between the two nations. NAM contributing writer William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota.
President-elect Barack Obama has a serious opening to improving relations with Iran, if he knows how to exercise it. Unfortunately, his transition advisory team is weak on Middle East affairs, and almost non-existent on Iran. This leaves the president-elect prey to the same forces that have tried to sabotage progress on rapprochement with Iran during the Bush administration.
Paradoxically the Bush administration in its last days is flirting with a thaw on Iranian relations. They have been giving serious consideration to establishing a real United States Interests Section in Tehran. Iranians have had an Interests Section in Washington for decades. By contrast, the Swiss Embassy has represented U.S. interests with Swiss personnel.
The difficulty facing Obama is that U.S.-Iranian relations have fallen into the general question of Israel's difficulty with the Palestinian community. This line has been promulgated by Israel, and also by American lobbyists for Israel, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Any move toward rapprochement with Iran is now seen as anti-Israel. In his appearance before AIPAC during the campaign, President-elect Obama vowed to protect Israel, putting him at odds with an earlier pledge to talk to Iran "without preconditions."
In fact, Iran poses no danger to Israel, a fact acknowledged by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as well as Kadima Party leader and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who said as much in private talks reported by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz in October 2007.
Obama's successful election has created an unprecedented positive climate in Iran toward the United States. This is based not only on the substantive hope for change, but also on the person of Barack Hussein Obama. Symbolism matters. President-elect Obama's middle name, which was used to induce suspicion among the American public by Republicans during the presidential campaign, is pure gold in Iran. Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad, is the central religious figure in Shi'ism. His martyrdom in the 7th Century is the centerpiece in religious observance in Iran. Moreover, there are prophetic rumors flying in Iran of a new "dark" leader coming from the West to bring reform and salvation.
Merely talking to Iran would not pose a problem. Iran's detractors, however, object strenuously to going to the conference table without making Iran pay a price up front.
It is important to clarify what the portmanteau concept "without preconditions" really refers to. Every time the Bush administration has professed its willingness to talk to Iran, it has made it a precondition that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program. Iran did this unilaterally in 2003, and - guess what - the Bush administration still wouldn't talk to them, having utterly rebuffed the famous proposal sent to them via the Swiss embassy.
The call for Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment was clearly stated in Security Council Resolution 1696 not as an end in itself, but as a confidence-building measure to assure Iran's non-violation of Article IV of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), while asserting Iran's "inalienable right" (NPT preamble) to peaceful nuclear development, including uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Because there has never been any proof of an Iranian nuclear arms program, and the U.S. NIE report of 2007 asserted that Iran had no nuclear arms program, the resolution is effectively moot. Moreover it is not "international law" as the Bush administration has asserted. For this reason the precondition that Iran cease uranium enrichment before the United States would talk to it is anathema to Iran. It is tantamount to de facto deprivation of what Iranians see as their inalienable right under the NPT.
If the Obama administration would drop this sole precondition-there has never been any other- Iran's nuclear program could still be on the table for discussion, and Iran-U.S. relations would move forward.
William O. Beeman is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association, and has conducted research in Iran for more than 30 years. The second edition of his book, "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other," has been published by the University of Chicago Press.