Mar 25, 2009
Obama’s olive branch
PRESIDENT Obama has extended a hand of friendship to Iran in a fashion that no other US president has done in a generation. His Nauroz message to Iranians was adulatory, effusive and conciliatory. He recalled the greatness of Iranians and their civilisation. He quoted Saadi, a giant in the pantheon of Persian poets, and offered to establish a constructive relationship by addressing through diplomacy the whole range of Iran-US issues. There was no hint at regime change, no allegations of terrorism and no charge of deception or irresponsible behaviour. The message was a far cry from his predecessor’s ‘axis of evil’ speech.Iran’s reaction was tepid. Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei demanded a change in US behaviour, castigated the US for support to terrorists opposed to the Islamic Republic and recalled American support of Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.In what should be of concern to Pakistan, Khamenei accused the US of aiding rebels fighting Iranian security forces along its border with Pakistan. (The reference was to Jundullah, a group straddling the Pak-Iran border. Iran accuses the US of assisting Jundullah as part of its strategy of containment of Iran. Tehran believes that Pakistan needs to be more assertive to curtail cross-border attacks and movement by Jundullah.) Khamenei finally demanded that the US match its words with action. Republican administrations have a singular contribution in exacerbating mistrust and tension in Iran-US relations. President Ronald Reagan’s eight-year presidency (1980-88) coincided with Iraq’s aggression against Iran, during which the US shared arms and intelligence with Iraq. Eight years of President Bush’s presidency saw threats of regime-change in Iran and unsubstantiated allegations of Iran supporting terrorism. Apart from America’s allies no one subscribed to the American view that Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah constituted terrorism. In fact, Iran was generally admired for protecting the Lebanese and Palestinians from wanton Israeli aggression. It is this chasm of mistrust and suspicion spanning three decades that Iranian and American leaders will be called upon to bridge. It is an awesome challenge. On the positive side are factors which should act as an incentive. Peace, security and stability in the Persian Gulf are in the vital interest of both the US and Iran. Likewise, normal conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan are as important to Iran’s stability and political and economic development as they are to US interests and that of its regional allies.Israel is the paramount obstacle to a US-Iran rapprochement. It has successfully neutralised both Egypt and Iraq. It considers revolutionary Iran with nuclear capability potential as an inveterate enemy. A former Israeli senior military official when asked how far Israel was willing to go to stop the Iranian nuclear programme replied ‘2,000 kilometres,’ roughly the distance between Israel and Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Isfahan. Given the disproportionate and effective Israeli lobby in Washington, the Obama administration, if sincere in its overtures to Iran, should avoid falling into an Israel-laid trap designed to scuttle the initiative.There is disquiet in the Arab world regarding a US dialogue with Iran which could mean tacit recognition of their neighbour’s nuclear programme and acceptance of its status as a leading regional state with influence. There is some basis for the suspicions that the Persian Gulf Arab states, particularly those with significant Shia populations, harbour towards Iran. However, with the passage of time Iran’s revolutionary ideals have mellowed and the earlier assertiveness and interference, aimed at spreading these ideals abroad, are practically non-existent now.On the other hand, the death and destruction caused to Iran by Arab-backed Iraq continues to rankle one and all in Iran. The Iran-Iraq war cost nearly $1tr. It is high time that both the Arabs and Iran showed statesmanship and reconciled their differences. The only entities to benefit from this confrontation would be Israel and the ‘merchants of death’ based in the West.Supreme Leader Khamenei has demanded that President Obama match his words with deeds. What can the US do to demonstrate its sincerity? To date the US has pursued a hard-line strategy towards Iran. It has adopted a host of measures designed to compel Iran to act in ways favourable to the US.These have included freezing of Iranian assets and the Iran Sanctions Act which prohibits both American and foreign companies from investing in Iran’s oil and gas sectors. It has played a key role in imposing a raft of sanctions on Iran to force it to give up uranium enrichment. It generously funds radio and TV programmes which Iran sees as promoting disaffection among its people. It has set aside funds meant for regime change. It has declared many Iranian organisations as terrorists. This includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The US could strike off any one or more of these measures to send a positive signal to Iran. The words spoken by President Obama are words of peace. They are distinctly different from the arrogant and threatening words repeatedly and unthinkingly uttered by his predecessor. They hold considerable promise. Iran must take them at face value. Iran’s national interests call for a flexible approach. This should not be equated as reneging on principles. Rigidity cost Iran dearly in the war with Iraq. It should learn from its past mistakes. The writer was formerly Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran.