Obama between Iran and Israel

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ambassador William A. Rugh

When Barack Obama became president of the United States in 2009, one of his first foreign policy initiatives was to reach out to Iran, saying his government sought “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” It was characteristic of Obama to prefer diplomacy over confrontation and conflict. But that first attempt at conciliation was rebuffed by Iran, and the Obama administration reverted to the hostile policy toward Iran that Washington had followed for more than thirty years.

The American public has supported this hostility, based on anger and resentment toward Tehran going back to 1979, when the Khomeini regime held American diplomats hostage for 144 days in an unprecedented act against America. Over three decades, American public antipathy towards Iran and its government has been repeatedly reinforced. When Muhammad Khatemi was president of Iran for eight years, between 1997 and 2005, he said there should be no clash of civilizations but rather a dialogue between Iran and the West. He tried to reach out to America, but Washington did not respond. The American people and Congress did not press their government to engage with the Iranian regime because of the resentments that remained.

Therefore it was easy for George W. Bush, when he became president in 2001, to focus on Iran as one of America’s major enemies. In January 2002, Bush declared that Iran was part of an “Axis of Evil”, along with Iraq and North Korea, that his government intended to fight against. When Bush launched a war on Iraq in 2003, many people thought that Iran would be his next target. The hard line supporters of the Bush administration wanted him to take military action against Iran, and they considered diplomatic engagement with Iran as a sign of weakness. In fact, in 2003 shortly after American troops entered and occupied Iraq, the Khatemi government sent a signal to Washington offering to negotiate all outstanding bilateral issues. Teheran may have been motivated to make this conciliatory gesture out of fear that American troops would soon move into Iran. But the Bush administration just ignored Iran’s initiative.

In 2005, Mahmud Ahmedinejad replaced Khatemi as president the negative image of Iran in the minds of Americans solidified. They regarded Ahmedinejad’s regular harsh public criticism of the United States as insulting and it only confirmed to them that Iran was a threat to U.S. interests. The mutual hostility in public between Tehran and Washington reached new heights. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continued to stress the idea that America, “the Great Satan”, was a threat to Iran because it helped justify the regime’s continued existence in power. Ahmedinejad was his instrument in that campaign.

Throughout his first term in office, Obama’s policy toward Iran, after his initial engagement effort failed, became increasingly hard line. Most Americans were comfortable with that. Moreover, it was important that it fit nicely with Obama’s relations with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu made an ongoing and very public effort to persuade the United States to demand that Iran give up its entire nuclear program because it might lead to a nuclear weapon. President Obama agreed that Iran should be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and in a speech to a pro-Israeli group during an election campaign he said that “containment” of Iran – the policy applied to the Soviet Union during the Cold War – was not enough. Netanyahu liked that but for him it was not strong enough. Many Americans thought he was pushing Obama to undertake a military strike against Iran, and that Israel might even take such military action alone.

Therefore when Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran last August, and expressed a strong interest in a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue, this put Obama to a test. Should he respond to this overture as the opportunity he had hoped for four years earlier that had not materialized? If he did so, he knew that would antagonize Netanyahu, who was already warning against Rouhani as a person representing the old danger with a smiling face. Obama was forced to choose, on the one hand, between a possible new opportunity to help reduce the Iranian nuclear threat, and his desire, on the other hand, to placate Netanyahu and the strong pro-Israeli lobby in America.

Barack Obama chose to explore the possibilities with the new Iranian president. This infuriated Netanyahu. When Obama agreed to direct negotiations on nuclear issues, Netanyahu called this an “historic mistake”, which amounted to a public insult to Obama, who had been extremely supportive of Israel in many ways up to that point. Obama’s decision showed political courage, because it aroused some strong opposition in the U.S. Congress, both from his Republican Party opponents and even from his Democrat Party allies.

Some Republicans opposed Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran because they oppose anything he does. But some members of both parties were critical of the decision because of the deeply ingrained American idea that Iran was always going to be hostile, and also because of the power of the Israeli lobby.

Obama’s response to his critics was that regimes can change, and Rouhani should at least be tested. Moreover, the interim nuclear deal with Iran gives very little away and achieves a great deal by halting Iran’s nuclear program and establishing intrusive inspections. Obama argued that the great benefit of possibly controlling Iran’s nuclear activity was worth the small risk of reducing a few minor sanctions on a trial basis. The sanctions could be easily resumed and even intensified if the deal failed. Washington also made clear that the US had no intention of reducing its commitments to the Gulf states. In short, the risk for Obama was a domestic political one: that he was openly confronting Israel on a matter that Netanyahu declared was vital. Obama must now confront friends of Israel in Congress and persuade them not to kill the interim deal.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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