Taking the slow lane to Tehran

One year after disputed election, Obama pursues slower, more limited engagement with Iran.

    Obama is taking a slower, more limited approach to engagement with Iran, analysts say [White House]

    Saturday’s anniversary of last year’s disputed election in Iran follows eight days after another milestone: the one-year anniversary of US president Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world in Cairo.

    The election and the speech - coupled with other events, like Obama’s Nowruz message - created a brief moment of optimism early last summer about the prospect of better US engagement with Iran. That optimism quickly faded as the Iranian government clamped down on demonstrators and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme dragged on.

    It continues to slip further away: Iran reacted angrily to new economic sanctions imposed this week by the United Nations Security Council, saying that the resolution would jeopardise any further negotiations with the West.

    With the prospect of a nuclear breakthrough looking remote, many analysts in Washington say the Obama administration will look to engage Iran - slowly - on a broader range of issues.

    "I think the policy will remain one of engagement, but I think it will be widening," Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, said. "Initially it was narrowly focused on nuclear negotiations... now I think the administration believes it needs to pursue several policies at once."

    Missed opportunity

    The sanctions package approved this week is not expected to compel the Iranian government to come clean about its nuclear programme. Obama himself acknowledged that "the Iranian government will not change its behaviour overnight", and Iranian officials have pledged to continue enriching uranium.

    Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, argues that the administration missed an opportunity for further negotiations with Iran when it dismissed the so-called "Tehran declaration", the nuclear fuel swap deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey.

    Obama had encouraged the Iranians to accept a similar deal last year.

    The Iranian government is deeply divided over engaging with the US [AFP]

    "This deal was supported by President Obama until he actually got it," Sick said. "The strategy was supposed to be getting Iran back to the negotiating table; Turkey and Brazil gave us that opportunity... but the administration’s attitude has been terribly dismissive."

    Even if the US administration had embraced the proposal, the Iranian government remains divided over whether to strike a deal with the West.

    Several analysts and opposition members in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous, said Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is willing to negotiate - but he faces a great deal of opposition from his own government. Analysts in the US share that view.

    "The internal situation is badly fragmented on the political side," Sick said.

    Alternate options

    That leaves the White House looking for alternate avenues to pursue. One possible approach is engaging with the Iranian opposition, the "Green Movement".

    The White House tried not to link itself to the movement last year, both to avoid tainting the opposition and to avoid provoking the government. But the movement is already on the defensive: Its leadership has told activists to scrap plans for a demonstration on Saturday, fearing a crackdown from the Iranian security forces.

    "Obama still feels that any recognition of the Green Movement would damage the prospects for engagement," Abdo said. "But I think they’re starting to re-examine this conclusion."

    Human rights groups, meanwhile, are pushing the Obama administration to confront the Iranian government on its human rights record.

    More than 250 people were convicted last year of offenses related to election protests; many received lengthy sentences after what Human Rights Watch called "show trials". Hundreds of others remain detained without charges. Dozens of members of the Baha’i faith were arrested; many were "unjustly cast as scapegoats for the unrest", according to Amnesty International.

    Drewery Dyke, a researcher at Amnesty, said a focus on those abuses could help Western governments engage with the Iranian public, if not the government.

    "If you want to get progress on situations that are tricky, you could do worse than pushing the human rights button," Dyke said.

    US officials have already embraced a push for the right to free speech in Iran. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, delivered a major speech on Internet freedom in January, and the US treasury department has relaxed sanctions against Iran to allow certain kinds of communications software into the country.

    None of this, of course, amounts to a major shift in US-Iranian relations, a Nixon-going-to-China moment. Obama will continue his rhetorical outreach to Iran; indeed, defence secretary Robert Gates told Al Jazeera the US is still open to negotiations. But the prospect of a serious diplomatic breakthrough seems off the table.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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