By Iran Review
By Kayhan Barzegar*
Since the advent of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, various US presidents tried to bolster an anti-Iran trend in America’s domestic and foreign policy conducts. But President Barack Obama, due to his personal characteristics, as well as the exigencies of regional issues, has acted differently and somehow toned down the usual anti-Iran trend in Washington.
The anti-Iran approach within the US power structure, beyond the existing mutual ideological clashes resulting from the Islamic Revolution, is actually rooted in Iran’s regional role and conducts that Washington perceives to be against the US interests. As a result, in the course of past three decades, Washington has been consistently introducing Iran as the main source of insecurity and threat in the region.
In Washington’s perspective, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been acting against the current political-security trends in the region, being traditionally, one way or another, under the United States’ control for decades. For example, Iran plays an opposite role to the US approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and supports the Lebanese Hezbollah, which the US designates as a terrorist group, or supports Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, which Washington aims to overthrow. Iran also pursues its own independent policy in Yemen to establish an inclusive government, which is against the interests of US’ regional ally, Saudi Arabia.
Finally, Iran is against the Israeli regime’s policies while the United States has been traditionally committed to protect its interests. To the above list can be added the accusations about Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear weapons, which is more significant for the US from a geopolitical and regional context. Though this understanding has somehow changed following the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015.
The above-mentioned understanding led former US presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, designed and operationalized their “dual containment” and “axis of evil” policies respectively. They also regulated the US domestic political atmosphere on this basis and mobilized their regional allies in line with this policy.
In the same manner, of course, one should not ignore the extensive impact of Israeli and Saudi lobbies on the US power structure. These lobbies’ main goal has been to negatively affect Iran’s regional role. The Israeli regime primarily seeks to maintain its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East and is artificially trying to show that the Arabs and the Israelis have common interests in opposing Iran.
Likewise, the Saudis have clearly announce that the main concern behind the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers is not merely due to continuation of Iran’s nuclear activities, but because it boosts Iran’s regional role. Unfortunately, the dominant trend within the US is greatly influenced by these lobbies.
President Obama, however, has been trying to change this track of thinking. Mainly for two reasons:
First, He is among those political elites in America who strongly believe in the value of applying diplomatic means in solving the problems facing the US in the world. This way of thinking can be traced back to the views of former US President John F. Kennedy, when the United States through diplomacy prevented a nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Obama believes war is only the last solution and that all means for the success of diplomacy should be applied before entering war. Such understanding is also held strongly by the US State Secretary John Kerry, who was also a staunch opponent of the US war in Vietnam.
Second, is the gradual alteration in the political-security conditions in the region to the detriment of the United States, which favors Washington to engage with Iran as a regional actor. The region is currently in turmoil and this is not to the benefit of the US interests. The US invasion of Iraq and imposition of billions of dollars in war costs on Americans only led Iraq to the current precarious situation in which the so-called Islamic State’s terrorists have put the country on the verge of collapse and increased sectarian politics under a weak government. This was not the aim that US primarily sought in Iraq, depicting a disastrous foreign policy legacy. Likewise, the US policy of insisting on removing Asad from power in Syria has not been successful so far and has only served to bolster the position of the US rivals, namely Russia and Iran in the region. Moscow’s direct involvement in the Syrian crisis, welcomed by Tehran, is a turning point in the regional political-security issues and will have serious geopolitical implications for the US and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Concurrently, Iran has boosted its regional role by showing determination and relying on a set of principles, such as supporting its allies under any conditions. It has successfully managed to connect its national security and geopolitical interests to its foreign policy principles, adjusting itself with the changing geopolitical situations in the region. In this regard also, the Iran nuclear deal has positively changed Iran’s regional situation. Defusing the so-called possibility of weaponization of the Iranian nuclear program has taken down the extremist forces and states’ justification in echoing anti-Iran sentiments, leading European countries, Russia, China, Japan, India, Turkey, etc., to seek and encourage regional cooperation with the participation of Iran. In short, Iran is gaining increasing legitimacy for playing its part in the resolution of regional crises.
Therefore, President Obama’s policy to change track toward Iran, in addition to solving the nuclear issue, is related to the necessity of engaging with Iran for the resolution of other regional problems. This comes at a time that the general environment in the US seeks minimum presence in the Middle East’s affairs, especially in the light of the aftermath of Bush’s warmongering policies. In other words, to meet its interests, the US had to choose a policy different from that of the past, taking also into account Iran’s role in the regional issues.
President Obama has been trying to replace the traditional confronting approach of putting political – economic pressures or military threat on Iran, with a new policy that more focuses on the necessity of interaction and acceptance of Iran as a regional reality. In a meeting with the heads of Arab states, he clearly announced that Iran is not to blame for all problems in the region and that the Arab countries should also think of their own domestic political problems. As for the Israeli regime, Obama also unequivocally announced that the US national interests cannot be necessarily met through following suit with Israel’s regional policies, noting that the nuclear agreement with Iran would be even to Israel’s benefit.
Although the distance of distrust between Iran and America is still high, one cannot ignore that Obama’s different approach, has to some extent bolstered the political trend in the US political structure that favors close relations with Iran. And no doubt, the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers has helped strengthening this new situation.
*Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran and a former research fellow at Harvard University. He also chairs the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.