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Iran Uncertain About Obama's Intentions

Interviewee: Gareth Porter, Historian, Investigative Journalist
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 17, 2008

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Gareth Porter, a  veteran investigative journalist and historian just returned from Iran, says early optimism that President-elect Barack Obama would open a new dialogue with Iran has dissipated. Porter says many Iranian political figures now see Obama's selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state as an indication he will continue Washington's insistence that Iran first signal a willingness to suspend its nuclear enrichment program before engaging more intensely.

You've just come back from a twelve-day trip to Iran. What kind of mood did you find in the Iranian political elite vis-ŕ-vis the next U.S. administration?

I had the impression that they are looking to the Obama administration for a potential opening to Iran, but at the same time are very skeptical about the chances at this point that that's going to happen, particularly in light of his announced national security team.

You mean the fact that he picked Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state?

That was the primary thing that I was told that really has had an impact on Iranian thinking about the chances for a negotiated agreement with the United States in the coming year. Before her being named there was a good deal more anticipation within the Iranian leadership about the possibilities for negotiating with Obama. But there had been from the beginning, I was told, two very different points of view about Obama's administration and about Obama himself. One was that he was elected because of a demand on the part of the American people for change, which they could imagine would extend to the foreign policy realm and particularly to Middle East policy. They were aware, of course, of Obama's specific statement in the campaign about being willing to talk without preconditions with Iran. On the other side of the political ledger, there was a very pessimistic view that Obama would not have the freedom of action to have a new policy toward Iran because of the influence of what they call "the Zionist lobby" in Washington and the power, particularly financially, of that lobby to eventually block any initiative toward Iran. It was certainly my impression based on more than one interview that the debate that had begun after Obama was elected, and probably even before that, was critically affected by the choice of Hillary, whom the Iranians believed had a very pro-Israeli point of view.

Of course Obama himself, when he spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading pro-Israeli organization in Washington, was extremely pro-Israeli.

"[Iranian analysts] believe that Iran and the United States do in fact share some common objective interests in the Middle East, specifically opposing al-Qaeda and some of the extremist terrorists."

He made the right statements about support for Israel. There's no question about that. One could speculate of course just how far that would go in terms of affecting every other part of his Middle East policy and that obviously was what was being debated in Iran.

Did you get a clearer sense of who Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be running against in the presidential elections next June?

I did get the impression that former president Mohammed Khatami [the so-called reformist president prior to Ahmadinejad's election in 2005] is emerging as a possible,  if not the likely candidate, but this is a more recent development. In the past couple of months Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani [a former president and still an influential political figure] and his followers have apparently shifted their support  to Khatami. That is a factor that cannot be minimized, but I was warned not to take for granted that Khatami would be the candidate; there's still plenty of time left for maneuvering. Everything depends on the former centrist coalition coming together and all of the people who are interested in running basically agreeing to support a single candidate. That has not happened yet.

This  has never really happened in Iranian elections, has it?

It has not happened, you're right. This would be an unprecendented development. There is a lot of discussion about that happening. One person that I spoke with in the Khatami camp said that he felt that this was going to happen and this would resolve with Khatami being the candidate. But that's still very uncertain.

If Barack Obama or the new national security adviser, General James L. Jones, or even Hillary Clinton asked you to come over and give some advice, what would you tell them right now?

I would say two things would be the most important considerations to bear in mind about initiating  diplomatic contact with Iran in the new administration. One would be to consider Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the target for communication and not President Ahmadinejad. Of course some kind of communication to Ahmadinejad, as a matter of formal response to his letter congratulating Obama on his election, would probably be called for. But that would not be the primary communication that Obama needs to be thinking about. The primary goal should be to communicate with the Supreme Leader himself. He's the one known to be personally presiding over all decisions on relations with the United States. And more than one person I interviewed suggested that the Obama administration ought to be thinking about sending a communication directly to him. There's a precedent for that in recent history. President Vladimir Putin of Russia sent a personal message to Khamenei with a special envoy to Tehran in early 2007, and that apparently was a successful communication because it did result in Khamenei sending his own special envoy, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, to Moscow for a meeting there. It seems like that would be a way to ensure against Obama playing into Iranian electoral politics, which is one of the concerns that an Obama administration would have in responding or communicating with the Ahmadinejad administration at this time.

Did you get the sense from the Iranians you spoke to that they are conscious of the fact that in the United States, there is still widespread unhappiness with Iran, going back to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, and that there is a need possibly for Iran to take some initiative to apologize?

Honestly, that is not something that I heard any of my interlocutors mention. They did not volunteer that, "We understand that we have to somehow make gestures" to Americans. It was very much in the opposite direction, that Iranians feel it is incumbent on the United States to make minimum gestures in light of the recent history of overt hostility on the part of the United States toward Iran.

That brings me to the second point that is very important for an Obama administration to consider in thinking about its early communication with Iran, the importance, which more than one official or advisor emphasized to me, of communicating the idea of "mutual respect" to the Iranian government. That is the almost magical formula for the Iranians of the United States communicating or symbolizing willingness to accept Iran as a legitimate partner in negotiation. The phrase "mutual respect" is one that they very strongly desire and even demand that the United States use in communication with Iran.

Was there any indication that Iran would agree to a suspension in its nuclear enrichment program, at least for a period of weeks, so that there could be general negotiations started?

"The primary goal should be to communicate with the Supreme Leader himself. He’s the one known to be personally presiding over all decisions on relations with the United States."

I did not get any specific signals from Iranian officials about this. What I did get was a more general signal that in light of the evidence they have now seen, the Obama administration is not likely to be taking the kind of initiative that they had hoped. This is the kind of thing that is likely to be seriously influenced by the debates that I was told had been going on within the leadership and national security circles of Iran about how much freedom President Obama would have with regards to changing his policies towards Iran.

Both the United States and Iran share a strong enmity toward the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Do you think it's possible there can be cooperation on Afghanistan? Obama seems very preoccupied with Afghanistan at the moment.

Well, you've put your finger on one of the themes that certainly hovers in the background of any discussion in Tehran of U.S.-Iran relations. They believe that Iran and the United States do in fact share some common objective interests in the Middle East, specifically opposing al-Qaeda and some of the extremist terrorists. And they would like to build on that which they regard as objective common interests. It's interesting that on the question of Afghanistan, Iranians said nothing critical about U.S. troops in Afghanistan except that they are sustaining higher casualties than those in Iraq. A senior official associated with a foreign ministry think tank did not suggest at all that Iran wants to push U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, far from it. His  concern was that the United States might conceivably go along with or propose a dialogue with the Taliban. He says if the United States were to do that, it would be a serious mistake.

I guess the bottom line at the moment is this: On a scale of 1-10, what do you think the odds are right right now of a serious U.S.-Iran dialogue in the next six months?

It's very hard for me to say because I just don't know what the thinking is on the part of Obama himself and the people who he is now listening to on this. I don't even know who he is listening to. My sense is that he most likely will try something that positions himself to having a firm hand toward Iran in his first try rather than going all the way over to what the Iranians would like to see him say in his communication. So I think that in the first month, either he will not communicate anything, he'll wait until after the elections in June, or he will communicate something that will position himself as taking pretty hard lines toward Iran in the first few months. That's very likely to get a negative response from Tehran, and he might end up, then, adjusting the position later.

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