Iran & America: The Clenched Fist Grasping an Olive Branch

The Obama Administration’s call for a fresh start with Iran have so far been met with hostility, a result of political battles within Iran’s governing faction. Yet the political squabbling masks a tentative movement in Iran away from hostility and towards engagement.


     The Natanz nuclear complex south of Tehran.

By Daniel Jeffery, for

President Obama recently stated that it was time for Iran to take its ‘rightful place in the community of nations’ and that the United States was willing to extend its hand if Iran would ‘unclench its fist’. [1] Even though these sentiments represent the tone of a new policy towards Iran, concrete details are as yet unknown as the White House is not expected to formally release their Iran policy until the Iranian elections have been held in June. Whatever the specifics of the policy may be, it would seem that the core principles guiding this potentially revolutionary policy will be engagement, trust, security and reciprocity.

The effectiveness of this policy is crucial for President Obama’s Middle East policy as Iran holds the key to solving many of the region’s ills. At issue are not just nuclear capabilities and intentions but questions of Afghan border security, refugees, drug trafficking and, perhaps surprisingly, wheat. Indeed, with Iran becoming the world’s largest importer of wheat (with the US a major contributor) as well as having to deal with a herd of drug mules crossing its border every day from Afghanistan, thereby corroding civil society on its Eastern border, it would seem that Tehran needs Washington every bit as much as Obama needs Khamenei.

Despite the obvious benefits of cooperation, Iran keeps obstructing American outreach efforts. The most recent such move was the imprisonment of American journalist Roxana Saberi for alleged espionage. This is, on the face of it, a direct rebuttal of American advances. However at closer inspection this incident is in fact the expression of a volatile and complex power struggle that is underway within the upper echelons of the Iranian establishment.

The Extended Hand of Diplomacy

There has been a concerted effort by the new US administration to engage with Tehran so as to reverse the ‘ridiculous approach’ of the Bush administration: diplomatic talks and negotiations are being allowed to go ahead without Iran having to shut down its nuclear facilities, therefore allowing enrichment procedures to continue during negotiations. [2] In recent strategy meetings between America and her European allies it was decided that the policy ought to allow Iran to expose its nuclear facilities incrementally to ever-expanding and thorough inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Another element of the Obama strategy is that there should be regular talks between the E3+3 States (the UK, Germany, France and the US, Russia and China) and Iran at both a formal and informal level. The aim of this dual pronged negotiating tactic is to allow for the discussion of sensitive issues in a frank manner which would foster trust at the sub-ministerial level: a prerequisite to any meaningful formal dialogue. The informal talks have the added potential to open up access to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, a feat which would be much harder to achieve at a formal level at this juncture. [3]

Petulance, Divisions and Elections

American attempts to initiate a new chapter in Iranian relations have, however, been thus far thwarted, rebuked, and rebuffed at every turn. At the rhetorical level, the Iranians emphasise that the Americans must add substance to their promises and atone for previous ‘crimes’ against Iran. More worryingly for the Americans is that this rhetoric has translated into action with the severe prison sentence handed out to an American national, Roxana Saberi, and her subsequent incarceration in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons. Indeed it seems that this event, more than hostile rhetoric, has the potential to derail President Obama’s plans for engagement with Iran.

However, the Obama administration would be unwise to take this episode at face value and use it as a yard stick for future interaction with Tehran. Policymakers should take into account the bitter internal rivalries and power struggles that are emerging in the run up to the Iranian Presidential elections in June.

Aside from the traditional division between the reformist and conservative ends of the political spectrum there has also been the emergence of a divided conservative party with hardliners on one side and moderates (comparatively speaking) on the other. Such is the chasm between them that they have not been able to select a nominee to run against the two reformist candidates. The key difference between these two conservative factions revolves around engagement with the US; the hardliners vehemently eschew any interaction with the Obama administration while the moderates seem open to the possibility of a tentative thawing of relations with them. The hardliners wish to see President Ahmadinejad continue in office despite his caveat laden ‘openness’ to engagement with America, as his demanding conditions for engagement seem unlikely ever to be fulfilled.

Without the hardliners on side President Ahmadinejad has no support within the upper echelons of Iran’s security apparatus. This includes the judges who sentenced Ms Saberi. Indeed it is wholly possible that this sentencing was a violent reaction from the hardliners, an attempt to throw a spanner in the works of Iranian-American dialogue. However, this hostility is best explained by the domestic political context rather than an ingrained hatred of all things American.

The Obama administration should understand that President Ahmadinejad is not necessarily an irrational, psychotic despot. He is, rather, a politician engaged in a difficult balancing act, attempting to secure his own power base by satisfying hardliners whilst simultaneously serving the interests of his country by moving tentatively towards engagement. Any movement towards engagement with America, however, alienates Ahmadinejad’s more conservative allies. Thus one can see the Iranian president’s horrifying Durban II speech as a concession to hardliners who wanted the president to recant his recent semi-favourable responses to Obama’s outreach efforts. The speech could also be seen as an attempt to galvanise the conservative camp around a common enemy, namely Israel.

With the switch away from the Bush era ‘diplomacy’ of insinuating violence and demanding the immediate cessation of the nuclear programme, the Obama administration has effectively deprived the conservatives of their trump card: hardliners can no longer accuse the reformists of acting against the national security interests of Iran through their willingness to engage with America. Indeed, by signalling that aggressive action is no longer an imminent threat, Obama gave unprecedented legitimacy to the reformists’ manifesto. If the reformists win in June then the increased engagement with the United States would lead to the lifting of the crippling UN sanctions. If this were to happen then the hardliners, who have a strangle hold on all facets of the Iranian economy would begin to lose their grip on the supply of goods, both legal and illicit, within Iran. [4]

The Fist Grasping the Olive Branch

Despite the internal wrangling of the Iranian regime and its apparently irrational hostile stance towards the US, President Obama should not lose heart nor should he give up on his pursuit of engagement with Iran. Indeed to do so would not only condemn the Iranian people to another term of increasing impoverishment, abhorrent human rights abuses and injustices, but it would embolden the existing regime by providing them with a sense of increased legitimacy. To abandon the Iranian policy would also spell a major set back for the Obama administration's vision for the wider Middle East region as they would lose influence over the state sponsor of Hamas and with it the chance to form a stable Palestinian Unity government.

The future course of Iran’s relations with the West hangs largely in the balance and will not be fully known until the outcome of the June elections are announced. If, as forecasted, the reformists win, then long icy relations would most probably start to thaw.[5] However even if President Ahmadinejad manages to secure another term then there could still be a meaningful improvement in relations even if this is disguised in less than friendly discourse. The overtures recently made by the Iranian president could be harnessed to produce tangible results. It is likely that President Ahmadinejad acknowledges that the current trajectory of Iran is unsustainable, both economically and politically, yet in order to preserve his authority he cannot be seen to be submitting to American demands. Bearing this in mind, President Obama would be wise not to take an Iranian fist at face value but rather to peer into it and assess whether it has at its centre an olive branch.


[1] President Barak Obama, quoted in ’Iran’s Leader Dismisses Obama Offer’, Al-Jazeera, 21 March 2009 available at

[2] Director General of the IAEA Mohamed El Baradei quoted in David Sanger, ‘U.S. May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran’, The New York Times, 4th April 2009

[3] David Sanger, ‘U.S. May Drop Key Condition for Talks With Iran’, The New York Times, 4 April 2009

[4] M. Sahimi, Qatar Tribune, 1 May 2009




The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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