Barack Obama’s suggestion that he would sit down and talk with the Iranian Prime Minister is perhaps the most sensible policy proposal in the stale foreign policy air of Washington, DC. Twice before Teheran has publicly reached out to the US, but both times it has been rebuffed. In 1998, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami proposed a "dialogue among civilization," which the UN adopted in 2001 as its theme for the year. Washington ignored the move, and turned its back on Khatami’s 2003 proposal that the US and Iran begin serious negotiations toward normal relations. In 2006, Iran’s current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a lengthy letter with "new ways" forward for the two countries. Bush, like Clinton before him, snubbed his nose eastwards. Washington’s refusal to talk to Iran is stubbornly myopic.
Washington’s reticence is curious. It comes at a time when the US armed forces have given Iran an immeasurably valuable gift in these past few years. Afghanistan’s Taliban and Iraq’s Ba’ath were two of Iran’s great foes in the region. Iran had been hemmed in between these two adversaries. A failed war in the 1980s rendered its western border frozen, and the rise of the Taliban on the eastern border removed Iran’s close allies (such as Ismail Khan of Herat). US armed force dethroned both the Taliban and the Ba’ath, providing Iran with a major strategic victory, and allowing it to flex its influence into Baghdad and Kabul (Ismail Khan is the Minister of Energy in Hamid Karzai’s government). Iran is now the key player in the region, pushing against the more socially conservative bloc led by the Gulf royals. Beyond the region, Iran has positioned itself as the Middle East’s ally of others who fear US unilaterialism (such as Venezuela’s Chavez and Russia’s Putin).
Close to ninety percent of the registered Democrats want the US forces withdrawn from Iraq within the year. But this withdrawal alone will not solve the mess created in the region by the Bush adventures. As the US forces leave, Iran is poised to be the Middle East’s protagonist. If Iraq’s ruling government has close links to Teheran, the Shia working-class across the region (from eastern Saudi Arabia to Lebanon and into Pakistan) have affective ties to Iran. This sentimental and political bond to Teheran cannot be bombed into submission. John McCain’s tasteless "Bomb, Bomb Iran" might play well with what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "irritable patriotism" of some Americans, but it is a baseless foundation for a foreign policy. Hillary Clinton joined this McCain strategy when she voted to censure Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in 2007, a move that was seen in the Middle East as an act of war. Iran’s seventy-two million people recognize this belligerence, which is only the most recent attempt by the US government to run up against Iranian nationalism (most people know that the CIA removed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and enthroned the unpopular Shah). Showing Iran our muscles is not going to be impressive.
A hidden sentence in our Declaration of Independence says that Americans should show "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." The Bush adventures have shown us that a tin ear combined with cruise missiles does not necessarily produce submission (North Korea and Iran are stronger now than they were in early 2001, and Iraq is in turmoil). What we need is a different philosophy to govern our foreign policy. Obama’s suggestion that he would talk to any leader, without preconditions, is refreshingly innovative. In November 2007, he said that he would meet the Iranian leadership and assure them that regime change is not on his agenda, but behavior change is certainly part of what he would negotiate toward. The most important aspect of his statement was not how he would talk to the Iranians, but that he would do so. Obama seems to recognize that Iran is a major player in the region, and it will not be bullied. The mess in Iraq and Afghanistan can only be sorted out with Iran on-board as an active participant in a multilateral, regional engagement. Obama is on the right track. One hopes that his foreign policy audacity will not fall by the wayside.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History, Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford. His most recent book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press, paperback March 2008).