Tag Archives: obama

Heat wave in Copenhagen (and Mitchell in Beirut)

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, a US attempt to encourage direct Lebanese-Israeli peace talk is rumoured in parts of the Arab press. Is it based on real insights into the thinking of Obama’s Mid-East team, or is it another al-Siyassah duck? The Kuwaiti newspaper, known for its sensationalist scoops, which most of the time seem to be based on wild speculation or even politically motivated lies, but sometimes actually appear to have nailed the truth, on Tuesday brought an interview with an anonymous Egyptian diplomat ostensibly in the know that Mitchell is to visit his half-native Lebanon in April in order to jump-start Lebanese-Israeli peace talks, practically dead since 1983. The Daily Star took the story seriously enough to put it on the front page (although that’s not saying an awful lot).

 

 

Looking at the political reality in the region, which I just observed at closed range two weeks ago, the prospect of Mitchell arriving in Beirut with a message of peace between Lebanon and Israel seems just as likely as a heat wave in Copenhagen tomorrow. In fact, it looks a lot more like a desperate attempt to plant a feel-good story in the press by those who have been taken aback by the results of the Gaza war on regional politics. And I am not talking about the killing of hundreds of civilians here (that can hardly surprise anyone anymore) – I am talking about the sheer hatred towards Israel in all quarters of the Arab populations which has just about sidelined the Saudi-Egyptian axis. How on earth would Mitchell be able to walk into Beirut with as much as a mention of talks with Israel on his lips?

 

 

In Beirut, I got the sense, from talking to a wide range of Shiite and other observers, that, more likely, we are heading for another round of confrontation if not in the short then in the medium term. Sadly, Hassan Nasrallah’s promise of revenge for Imad Mughniyeh last week and Ehud Barak’s even more visceral response yesterday only add to the evidence that the fruits of Gaza (you know, those grapes of wrath) could well be picked in Lebanon. True, Hizbollah have elections to win in June. But there are different strains of thinking in the movement, different priorities and different objectives. And the group that believes in the ultimate battle with the Zionist enemy above everything else has just been given one thousand three hundred and fourteen (so says the Ministry of Health in Gaza) more good reasons to fight in the last month. So to the wishful thinkers in the region who believe that nothing has changed (or, as a newscast asked me on Danish TV last week, that “the slate has been wiped clean” between the US and the Arab world with Obama coming to power), someone should break it to them that there’s been a war, and that there could be well another one around the corner.

 

 

 

Two pieces on the ‘Iran-Hamas’ discussion

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time in the new year to reflect on the most important topic in the discussion of the Middle East right now: the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. Fortunately, other people have had time! I recommend the following pieces:

Daniel Luban criticizes the neoconservative and Israeli statements and narratives of Hamas being an ‘Iranian proxy’ to drive home the point that it is not. In these days of all-out propaganda warfare against Iran and actual all-out war on the Palestinian people, this is important reading.

However, with her recent brilliant piece on ‘Israel, Gaza War, Return of “Emboldened Iran” and Obama’, Farideh Farhi places the discussion in a broader perspective. Instead of dwelling on what has become an art in itself – i.e. to determine, weigh and define the nature of Iranian influence on Hamas – Farhi maintains that the recent linking of the Gaza events with ‘the Iran threat’ is part of the general crisis over how to deal with Iran. Farhi also treats an extremely interesting aspect: the Basiji ‘Gaza volunteer’ sit-in in Tehran’s airport. The ‘volunteers’ are demanding to be sent to Palestine, but the state refuses (just as it seems to be restraining Hezbollah). Why? Read Farhi’s article!

More to follow soon!

Obama, Clinton and the need for a new look on the Darfur ‘genocide’

by Anders Hastrup.

The crisis in Darfur has captured public imagination in the US and thus the rest of the Western world in a manner unprecedented for a conflict on the African continent. Not since the anti-apartheid campaigns in the 1980s have students on US campuses been so passionately concerned about the plight of civilian Africans. Never before have the US public and various lobby groups from all sides of the political spectrum and different religious organizations been speaking with such a united voice about ending what former Secretary of State Colin Powell called a “genocide” in 2004. In their respective presidential campaigns both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have openly criticised the Bush administration for not putting any action behind the declaration and ending the genocide in Darfur. Before the new US administration takes over and we can expect a tougher line on the Sudanese government responsible for atrocities in Darfur, should Obama put force behind his words, it is of great importance that everyone engaged with the Darfur in the US read this piece and try to revise the root causes of the current tragedy and use these reflections to create a more balanced response. In this piece I wish to highlight some of the problems in labelling Darfur a “genocide” and separating the history of this tragedy from the history of the rest of Sudan.

Before moving on with some of the shortcomings of seeing Darfur as an unprecedented catastrophe in both the history of Sudan and Africa, let me say that I thoroughly appreciate the efforts of individuals, students, journalists, celebrities, community organisations, religious and political figures in the US who have put an incredible amount of energy in speaking out for the plight of the suffering civilians of Darfur. I myself have lived in Sudan for more than 2 years and have spent more than 1 one year working with the many internally displaced persons in the huge camps in Darfur. I have witnessed a humanitarian situation that has only deteriorated, families fleeing their homes for the second and third time all telling their stories of husbands slain in front of their wives, sexual violence and burnt down villages. I have met women gang-raped so violently they were unable to walk months after it took place, I have seen infants on the brink of starvation who I know can no longer possibly be alive as humanitarian access has been hindered by the deliberate attacks on NGO and UN vehicles all through Darfur.

I do not wish to downplay the need for action and upgraded international engagement, yet in my view a continued uncritical use of the term “genocide” where “Arabs” kill “Africans” to describe the horrors in Darfur is not only historically wrong, it may potentially be counterproductive and reproduce the current patterns of conflict, where civilians pay the highest price. Here is why:

•    The Sudanese government armed loyal Arab militias, the janjaweed, to carry out a scorched earth campaign as a counter insurgency strategy crushing an armed rebellion against the Khartoum government in 2003-2004. This led to the displacement of more than 2 million people, mostly non- Arab Africans throughout Darfur. However, many senior janjaweed commanders did not feel they where adequately rewarded by the Sudanese government wherefore they turned against Khartoum. In some cases these Arab rebels formed new alliances with the rebels they had set out to crush. Across ethnic boundaries they came together in unified resistance to Khartoum.
•    Since the failed Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, where only one of the rebel-fractions signed a deal with Khartoum a new front has opened between the two major African tribes in Darfur, the SLA/M, who signed the deal, and SLA/AW who didn’t. The SLA/M has carried out campaigns against civilians allegedly supporting SLA/AW in a very brutal manner. So brutal, in fact, that the SLA/M soldiers have been nicknamed “janjaweed 2”, their use of scorched earth campaigns and sexual violence a repetition of the horrors initially imposed on themselves and their fellow Africans by the horse-mounted Arab militiamen.
•    The reasons for joining the janjaweed militias were, and are primarily economic. It is not the first time the Sudanese government arms Arab militias and make them do the dirty job. In the eighties they were known as murahaliin and were instrumental in securing the border South of Darfur against the rebel group SPLA. They also carried out massacres against the civilian African population of the Dinka tribe in the South Darfur/South Sudan borderland. These militias who undertake such atrocities are not a master-race of Arabs from Khartoum but traditionally the poorest and most desperate of Darfur’s population. Unfortunately, NGOs have failed to grasp this socio-economic dimension as a major root cause of the conflict. Very few food aid or development programs have integrated the Arabs, whose livelihood opportunities are as destroyed as those of the “Africans”. Because of the “genocide” term and the continuing use of the “Arab” vs. “African” dichotomy by western media and lobby groups, giving food aid to Arabs is not politically correct. Many Arabs are thus marginalised by both the Sudanese government and the international agencies in the most expensive relief operation in the world. The pull towards human rights abusing militias thus remains compelling should the Arab tribes continue to feel this double marginalisation.

I have previously written a thesis on the history of displacement in Sudan using my year working in the biggest camp for the displaced in Darfur where these points are put in an elaborate historical perspective. A summary of my fieldwork and a discussion of the coexistence between an international vocabulary of human rights and universal justice and the local experiences of the displaced of Darfur can be found in the article “Violating Darfur. The Emergent truth of Categories in my own and Sune Haugbolle’s “The Politics of Violence, Truth and Reconciliation in the Arab Middle East”.

Let me conclude these remarks by reiterating my gratefulness to all individuals far away from Darfur and most notably in the US, where a tougher Darfur policy can be expected from the Obama administration, for their compassion with the Darfurians and their earnest desire to end the current catastrophe. Perhaps because I have been there so long and seen the situation change and words and meanings shift that I am uncomfortable uncritically applying the term “genocide”.

Stir in weblogistan, new Interior Minister, Rafsanjani’s feminism

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

A selective glance at Iran and Iranian media, November 21.

The (in)famous Iranian weblog writer Hossein Derakhshan – who has caused a stir in ‘weblogistan’ ever since he (allegedly) started the first weblog in Persian – has apparently been arrested in Iran (more here). His critics – and they are many – tend to see the irony in this: first of all, Derakhshan himself moved to Toronto (and later London) to escape censorship and control; secondly, in the past few years, Derakhshan was seen as a supporter of the Islamic Republic and President Ahmadinejad. One of the things that really upset pundits was when Derakhshan, also known by his online name Hoder, implicitly defended the Iranian state’s arrest and interrogation of the secularist intellectual Ramin Jahanbeglu.  Among his many other controversial ideas and actions was his denouncement of the ‘Zionist conspiracy’ – however, not before after he actually went to Israel himself, which is probably the reason why he is in jail in Iran now (i.e. being an Israeli spy). Derakhshan apparently had planned to go back and live in Iran when he was arrested a month ago. The state-run Iranian news agency IRNA has brought what seems as the first part of his ‘confessions’, in which Derakhshan tells how Iranian writers and journalists were “encouraged to leave the country and write against” the political system in Iran “in exchange for financial guarantees” and how the US blackmailed others to criticize Iran. In the ‘statement’, Derakhshan is alleged to have said that these anti-Iran activists now “used tranquilizing drugs” and “attempted suicide” to cope with the pressure put on them. More on this issue later.

Hosein Mar‘ashi, member of the ‘centrist’ Kârgozârân party has stated that Khatami will run for president while a key member of the pro-reformist Participation Front (Jebhe-ye moshârekat) stated that Karrubi’s participation in next year’s presidential elections doesn’t mean Khatami cannot participate too. It now seems certain Khatami will let us wait until last second before announcing his candidature.

Ayatollah Ha‘eri-Shirazi has argued that “the election of a black man in the US is the result of Ahmadinejad’s letters”. According to ILNA (Iranian Labour News Agency), the Ayatollah referred to the letters Ahmadinejad  sent to Bush and lately also to Obama: “Some criticize this letter [to Obama], however the election of a black man to Presidency of the US is itself a result of these same letters”. He also added that ‘Imperialist powers’ had stolen the medieval poet Sa‘di from Iran when they took one of Sa‘di’s quotes and placed it on the UN headquarters building in NY.

Iran’s new Interior Minister is the not-so-experienced politician (but millionaire and ex-Revolutionary Guards member), Sadeq Mahsuli. Even though it seemed he might not receive the Parliament’s endorsement (which was necessary), he was finally approved November 18. It seems he was helped by a campaign of propaganda-by-SMS. I have wondered for some years now about the use of SMS for the purpose of political propaganda in Iran. I do not have any info on the affiliation of telecommunication companies to the state apparatus, but there is no doubt that the authorities can use this medium at their discretion. I received an SMS from none other than Khamene‘i when I was in Iran earlier this year, reminding me to vote in the Parliamentary elections and thereby ‘support the people-serving government’. However, the related question is: how does ‘the state apparatus’ – being so fragmented and run by competing factions – divide the access to SMS distribution channels? Or is it just Khamene‘i who can use this service? In that case, there can be no doubt that the Supreme Leader supports Ahmadinejad and his team – including the new Interior Minister.

It has been known for years that the Iranian authorities are blocking access to many websites. However, now it’s official (wow!). According to Shahab, the official statistics show that 5 million websites are currently ‘filtered’ by Iranian judicial authorities.

Former President and Head of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Rafsanjani has stated that “with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, women found their real place [in society]“. He appeared together with his wife at the 6th Int’l Convention for Female Koran Researchers and said: “For a long period … Muslim women were not active and stayed at home. However, with the Islamic Revolution, the way has been opened [for their participation in society], in the shade of the Koranic blessing’s light; and now we see: 40,000 student dissertations on the subject of the Koran written by women and that shows in which direction women are moving”. He also added that the issue of women should not be treated with radicalism and extremism: “Some interpret women freedom to mean unrestrained behavior; however, one must certainly stay away from such radical and extremist [interpretations]”.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Turkish TV- and radio-giant TRT has launched its Persian services.

Miliband and Europe’s endorsement of Bashar’s self-image

by Sune Haugbolle.

What to think about the recent spout of European state visits to Damascus, and the Western attempt to engage Syria? First, let’s be realistic about the engagement: the many debates about what it would mean are moot, because it has in fact already happened, and there is little reason to believe that it won’t continue on the all important American front once Obama takes office early next year. David Miliband’s visit this week completes an extended “summer of love” for Bashar al-Asad, who can now look back at the time in 2005 and 2006 when his regime seemed under real pressure, from the Hariri tribunal and the general international sidelining of Syria, and smile. He has been vindicated in his policy of steadfastness, and he knows it. Ordinary Syrians may still be struggling with dire economic problems outside the Damascus circle of prospering cronies, and the UN tribunal may still throw up surprises that could incriminate the regime when it comes into action in the coming years. But unlike in 2005, these are now hurdles Bashar will feel he can handle from a position of strength.

That strength partly derives from the changing regional and international conjectures: a weakened US in the Middle East and the defeat of Bushism generally, Hizbollah’s steadfast resistance to Israel’s attempt to wipe it out in 2006, Lebanon’s inability to present a united front, and new leaders in France and now the US who appear to have “rediscovered” Syria’s potential as a central arbiter in the Middle Eastern jigsaw. Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. To near-quote The Streets, he is good to know, and he knows it.

What we also know is that there is a dark side to Asad’s Syria. Western diplomats have not found this the right moment to confront Bashar with his country’s human rights record, which is arguably no less appalling than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s, but still unacceptable. The “regrettable” aspects of Syria’s policies for Europe and the US have always been Damascus’ self-styled role as “capital of Arab resistance,” ie. its links with Tehran, Hizbollah, and Palestinian and Iraqi groups. It is only right that Miliband and others should cease to view Syria’s foreign policy as a stumbling block for negotiations. After all, Bashar al-Asad has shown that he can be moved, and that there is room for negotiation on almost all of the abovementioned fronts. Syrian-Israeli peace may even be within reach, to the benefit of all people in the region.

But it is not right that Miliband and other visitors to the Qasiyoun palace leave the complete lack of democratic reforms in Syria out of their policy of engagement. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the people who have struggled for years for political and human rights reform, and who continue to be imprisoned for asking for the most basic rights. Allowing Syria back in the fold without asking tough questions about these well-documented facts is nothing short of an endorsement of Bashar on all fronts. And although he may not be as bad as some have portrayed him, Bashar al-Asad’s legacy of stalled reforms is not one we should endorse, however badly we wish for normalisation in the Middle East. One can only hope that the US engagement, when it starts to take shape early next year, will do what the Europeans seem incapable of doing, and raise all the issue that are not part of Bashar’s self-image but that are very much part of daily life in Syria.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

[Updated]

Admittedly, there are many confusing, contradictory and ambiguous signs of where US-Iran relations are heading right now. On the one hand, you have both oppositional and conservative pro-regime forces in Iran together with left-wing commentators in the US saying that nothing will change, and that it might even get worse as Obama will gradually be forced to increase pressure on the Iranians. On the other hand, there are optimistic signs. Take this comment for instance: Robert Dreyfuss argues that the reason the US-Iraq Security Pact has finally been drafted and is up for approval is Iranian support. Even though it is ‘not a done deal’, the fact that the drafters could reach this stage points, in Dreyfuss’ opinion, to Iranians’ giving it the green light. If this is so, it is of course a sign of willingness to cooperate with a US under Obama:

“The election of Barack Obama changed Iran’s calculus, and so Iran decided, very subtly, to shift to neutral on the pact. As a result, many politicians in Iraq who are either influenced by Iran or who are outright Iranian agents now support the pact. It’s an important sign from Tehran to Obama that they’re willing to work with the United States” writes Dryfuss.

On the other hand, Dreyfuss reminds us that Iran is not ‘thrilled’ over US forces staying for another three years; and that ‘if things get sour’, Iran can again start supporting militant insurgent groups like Sadr’s forces.

Apparently, Ayatollah Shahrudi – head of the Iranian Judiciary and considered a close (yet somewhat ‘moderate’) aide to Khamene‘i – has endorsed the pact, stating that “security and stability is in the interest of the regional nations”… Now, I guess the next question would be: does this mean Khamene‘i agrees with this point? Even though Khamene‘i sometimes drop his veil of ‘neutrality’ in domestic factual disputes and sometimes deliberately parts from his favorite image of ‘impartiality’, Khamene‘i doesn’t need to state his views. This is why the Iranian foreign policy line appears so opaque or engimatic to many observers: since Khamene‘i is not a President but a fatherly ‘Guardian’ / supreme-authority-behind-the-curtains, he can just let various aides and associates voice different policy options or views without us knowing which one is actually going to be implemented.

Thus, I see this as yet another classic example of Iran’s two-pronged strategy of suddenly airing surprisingly moderate/constructive/appeasing signals (enhanced when stated by conservative figures and clerics) – while letting other officials repeat the same old songs against the Global Arrogance of Imperialist Powers etc. Nonetheless, I cannot help labelling this as a comparatively ‘suprising’ and relatively ‘conciliatory’ statement.

On a relevant note: it seems Iran has ‘accepted’ Turkey playing the possible role of mediator between US and Iran if Obama is to go ahead with talks. Nonetheless, this acceptance was of course followed by usual skepticism from Tehran:

… the reality is that the issue and problems between Iran and the United States go beyond the usual political problems between two states”; “Some 30 years after the Islamic Revolution, the US still has a negative stance towards Iranians,” the Iranian spokesman said.

Endorsement, mixed reactions to Obama, security measures

by Rasmus Christian Elling

A selective glance at Iranian media, November 13 / 2008.

Yesterday, the newspaper Vatan-e emruz reported a 3-hour meeting between former presidents (and former rivals) Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Allegedly – and I stress this as it must still be considered within the realm of rumors – Rafsanjani called on Khatami to run for president in next years elections. Khatami – according to this report – will wait until last minute to announce his candidature. Furthermore, in his endorsement, Rafsanjani even stated that another ‘reformist’ candidate, Mehdi Karubi (who seems to run for presidency every time but never succeeds despite a loyal constituency in specific areas), could be persuaded to step down. If this is the case, then Khatami could be the sole ‘reformist’ candidate – a development with profound consequences that demands a thorough analysis.

UPDATE: A spokesman from The Expediency Council, Rafsanjani’s stronghold, has denied the report…

One thing is certain: the conservative forces, despite all their internal differences, would probably have to unite around Ahmadinejad if Khatami enters the race. Other conservatives such as Hojjatoleslam Pur-Mohammadi (who also has announced his candidature) will certainly not be able to unite the different wings; and, personally, I have never thought that ‘Ali Larijani could muster enough support even though he is periodically hyped as a pragmatist with clout and support from the Supreme Leader Khamene‘i.

As the first president of the Islamic Republic to do so, Ahmadinejad congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory by writing a letter. Since then, Ahmadinejad has received a mixed review for this. Not surprisingly, his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported him; Larijani and another key conservative, Tavakolli, have criticized him; and Student Basij, the university division of the hard line Islamist paramilitary force sufficed to claim that Obama had learned his ‘Yes We Can!’ slogan from Ahmadinejad!

Meanwhile, skepticism about Obama’s intention in the Middle East seemed to spread in conservative Iranian media: Fars reported how Zionists rejoiced at Obama’s choice for Head of Staff; the state-run Kayhan daily announced that a ‘Son of an Israeli terrorist is Obama’s first selection’; and Raja News showed a picture of Obama with a skullcap, thus portraying him as “The Zionist Foe”.

Indeed, with the Iranians testing a new long-range surface-to-surface missile yesterday, some Western media expressed skepticism about the much-anticipated rapprochement between the US and Iran while others speculated a pre-Obama Israeli attack on Iran.

Middle East Times, quoting UPI (and Iran’s PressTV) stated that the Kurdish guerilla organization, PJAK (Party for a Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK-affiliate) has suspended operations against Iran. This would be a surprising turn as the organization has gradually increased its attacks on Iranian border guards since 2005.

At the same time, Iranian security forces were launching unprecedented major exercises throughout Tehran. Over six days, 30,000 officers trained urban scenarios under the banner of ‘Public Security and Tranquility’, reported Shahab News. ‘Quarantine of sensitive and important areas such as the bazaar and banks, 2.5 kilometer long parades in Tehran’s main streets and squares, enhancing security at strategic centers, the swift transfer of forces from other provinces to the capital and the rendering of services to the people in cases of emergency, such as earthquake, were among the goals of this maneuver’, the news agency stated. However, Shahab News rejected claims by ‘some political circles and media’ that the maneuver should be seen in the light of ‘recent changes’ in the command structure of the Security Forces (niru-ye entezâmi); Shahab News also ridiculed reports such as that in Al-Jazeera, which claimed Iran was ‘getting ready for unrest’.

Meanwhile, a debate is raging in Iran over the proposed installment of CCTV in certain areas of Tehran. Ahmadinejad has rejected this idea, floated by high-ranking security officers; later, a commander stated that the Security Forces did not intend to ‘control the personal lives of citizens’ and that only limited surveillance was in the planning.

BBC Persian also reported that the much-dreaded Operative Basij Patrols (gasht-e ‘amaliyâti-ye basij) have returned to Tehran after police replaced them in the years after the revolution. The basij, a paramilitary force known for its hard line Islamist ideology, is going to support the police in Tehran. Even though Tehranis have experienced many different kinds of gasht patrols, this is probably going to be one of the toughest when it comes to moral policing. Last but not least, BBC also reported that Tehran’s governor announced the opening of a new Council for Social Security in Tehran to combat crime and unrest.

In the view of Ahmad Zeidabadi – an experienced Iranian journalist now working for the BBC – there can be a positive and a negative interpretation of all these measures: the positive being that ‘social insecurity’ (that is, crime) has reached a point in Tehran, where such measures are indeed necessary; the negative of course being that the state apparatus seeks to frighten and harass the population, and prevent riots and uprisings – such as those one might expect to occur on the background of constantly rising food prices, inflation and unemployment.

Zeidabadi also pointed out Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the installment of CCTV in Tehran, which seems, to Zeidabadi, ‘mysterious’. Indeed, how come Ahmadinejad has blamed the security forces for creating a bad atmosphere of policing in the capital? Here, Zeidabadi states two possible interpretations: either Ahmadinejad was unaware of the security measures and now feels sidelined (thus maybe showing that the President will not be supported by the security apparatus in the upcoming elections); or that Ahmadinejad pretends he was unaware of the measures in order to paint a portrait of himself as a ‘moderate’ in the public mind (and thus attracting voters). Finally, Zeidabadi also mentioned that some analysts see these measures as part of a preparation for US attacks during the last months of Bush’s presidency.

US presidential elections and Iran-US relations

by Rasmus Christian Elling

The following is a slightly modified manuscript for my talk at the seminar ‘How Will the Next President Change US Policy in The Middle East?’ at The University of Copenhagen, October 22, 2008. Apart from myself, Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Associate Editor, Foreign Affairs), Sune Haugbolle (Associate Professor, Uni. of Copenhagen) and Bjoern Moeller (Senior Researcher, DIIS) participated.

Of course, we all know how the US elections turned out, and the ‘if’ part of this writing is now only of historic interest. Nonetheless, I hope that the glimpses of optimism in this piece – and in so many other op-eds written these days – will not one day be regarded as historical naivety.

What effect will the US presidential elections have on Iran-US relations?

First of all, we need to discuss what kind of change is actually conceivable. If you look at this question from a perspective of whether or not Iran will be ‘contained’, back down from its nuclear program and renounce its regional ambitions – then the US elections will probably not change anything. Iran will continue to have a nuclear energy program and not much can change that; furthermore, one might argue, Iran is in its good right to have such a program. Iran has accepted treaties and protocols that countries armed with nuclear weapons like Israel and Pakistan have never signed. And even though there are still many critical questions and even though there have been signs that the Iranians, at least until 2003, ran a covert arms program, the basic fact will not change: Iran is entitled to a nuclear program and the broad Iranian populace supports what is seen not only as a natural right but a question of national sovereignty.

I think that the most sensible thing we can hope for is to reach an agreement with the Iranians that clearly respect this right at the same time as maintaining and expanding IAEA access to the Iranian sites in question. In other words, the best we can hope for in this regard is to reach an agreeable level of transparency: to be able to monitor Iranian nuclear activities and thus hopefully prevent a conversion of the civil program to a military one.

This is not a defeatist view – this is a realist view. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that economic sanctions so far have not worked sufficiently. It is recognition of the fact that Chinese and Russian interests in Iran are not lessening– they’re expanding; and that we cannot expect Moscow and Beijing to support tougher sanctions on such a vital trading partner. It is recognition of the fact that a US military intervention – whether a limited air strike or a regular invasion – is now virtually out of question. Even if it was to drum up a minimum of international support, the US does not have the resources to achieve its goals in Iran by military power. The sense of patriotism that permeates an Iranian population, which sees itself as having 2,500 years of continuous history as an independent nation-state, means that whether or not the majority is dissatisfied with the current rulers, they would rally behind the government if the country were attacked. Furthermore, American forces are already tied up in two major armed conflicts that have stretched US resources to its limits.

Thus, to sum up: even though the next US president will probably not, at least on the rhetorical level, take the option completely off the table, military intervention should be out of the question; in their current form, sanctions will not work; and most importantly: none of these will change the ambitions of the Iranian government – or the view of the broad populace. Again, this is not an apologetic view: I personally think nuclear technology is potentially dangerous and problematic, whether in the hands of Iranians, Indians, Americans or Swedes. No doubt it is dangerous in Iranian hands too. However, I guess everybody here can agree on an answer if we were to choose between a completely opaque and secretive Iranian nuclear program and a relatively transparent one.

Yet, I think there is some reason to be fairly optimistic. There is no doubt that any president of the United States is constrained by pressure from interest groups and that no one – neither Obama nor McCain – could move swiftly towards a solution on the Iran issue. There is no doubt that any US politician is extremely wary of appearing too appeasing or too ‘soft’ when it comes to the question of Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a slight chance that a moderate and sensible president – if he was to be supported or allowed at home by his constituencies, the congress and other key entities – might just be able to lead the way towards dialogue. A pragmatic and prudent president might, for example, follow up on Condoleeza Rice’s recently floated idea of re-opening a diplomatic mission to Tehran, 30 years after Islamists occupied the US embassy. And that would truly, in my opinion, change the picture.

But then again, I feel I have to be optimistic. Because the alternative to dialogue is that nothing will change: Iran will continue a secretive path towards nuclear goals, the Islamist rulers will continue supporting anti-American forces in the region and Ahmadinejad will continue his ludicrous statements about Israel. Psychological warfare and tension-creating propaganda will continue to flow thick from both sides and nobody will benefit. Instead of bringing in Iran as a potentially constructive discussion-partner and maybe even a beneficial working partner in, say, rebuilding and stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, hostile relations will result in more and bloodier proxy conflicts. And yes, uncontained, that might eventually lead to a direct confrontation that will have catastrophic repercussions for the world economy, for regional security and for innocent civilians all over the world – and in Iran in particular.

How about the Iranians? I think it is time to correct certain views. First of all, Iranians are not suicidal fanatics and they are not ruled by a small cult of messianic maniacs, the way some would like us to think; Iran is governed by many different and competing centers of power; there are rational voices both within the ruling elite and in the opposition; secondly, Iran will not start a nuclear war – indeed Iran has never threatened to do so; and, thirdly, despite layers of ideological rhetoric, the Iranians have for many years put the global mission of Khomeini’s revolution after national interests when shaping their foreign policy. Thus, there have been many signs – in particular during the pro-reformist presidency of Khatami, but also during the presidency of Ahmadinejad – that the Iranians are sincerely interested in dialogue and direct negotiations with the US. Let us for example not forget that the real leader in Iran – Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i – in 2003 allegedly proposed to drop support for Islamist terror groups and to provide full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in return for US disbanding Mujahedin-e Khalq and accepting Iranian nuclear ambitions. Let us not forget the numerous attempts at positive engagement, bilateral cooperation and good will gestures during the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. And let us not forget that the beef, to use a colloquialism, is between the political rulers of Tehran and Washington, not the people; and that caught in between as a hostage there is a young and vibrant generation of Iranians longing for freedom, progress and equality.

Even if we choose to see the road to rapprochement as a cynical plot conceived in Tehran and aimed at portraying US as defeated and forced to sit at the table with the Iranians – it might not be such a bad thing after all. It might, as pessimists will claim, give an immediate triumphal effect for Ahmadinejad on the domestic scene:  i.e., that he was the one who was able to finally force the Great Satan to recognize Iranian ambitions. However, just like Ahmadinejad’s other rash statements and overconfident maneuvers, it will certainly backfire. Direct dialogue with the archenemy will alienate radical anti-Western forces in Iran and open the way for more far-reaching demands of rapprochement from the opposition and the broad populace; it will open the stored-up hopes for re-joining the global community and liberate Iran from its status as a pariah. Combined with dwindling oil prices, the Iranian government will eventually be forced to talk to and work out a sort of understanding with the US and Europe. And all this can lead the way to a broad bargain that includes mutual recognition of ambitions and goals, talks on the region in general and finally – and what should be the most import goal – talks on the deplorable situation of human rights and the lack of democracy in Iran. One could indeed argue that this is a good chance to do what Nixon did with China in the early 70s and a good chance to get an even better deal than the US recently got with North Korea.

However, I think that the US should not ‘settle’ for that. Indeed, an Iran-US rapprochement could be a constructive move towards adjusting the US to the slowly but surely emerging multi-polar world and its limited horizon of US options. This is a world in which you cannot introduce democracy and human rights at gunpoint and in which wholesale enforcements of cultural norms and across-the-board manipulation of internal affairs in sovereign states is no longer the accepted way ahead. It might be a hard pill to swallow – but it may also be a good chance for America to re-discover and re-invent itself and its role in the world.

Such a move requires that the next US president stop doing Iranian hardliners the huge favor of presenting America as their biggest existential threat. If the US were to drop its thinly veiled threats of regime change it would not only strip the Iranian leaders of their number one claim to legitimacy; it would also leave the Islamic Republic with one main enemy: itself. The Iranian people has more than one hundred years of democratic struggle on its CV and the Iranian people will change the authoritarian system when internal circumstances and conditions allow them to. Right now, one of the biggest reasons for the militarization of Iranian politics is the threat from Washington. It is giving the current Iranian rulers an opportunity to clamp down on advocates of human rights, the women’s movement, the student movement, the workers movement, regime-critical journalists and proponents of ethnic and religious minority rights. Without foreign intervention and without a foreign bogeyman, Iran will be left alone with its mounting economical catastrophe, severe factional infighting and 30-40 million discontented young Iranians. Indeed, Tehran will have more than enough on its hands and Iranian rulers will eventually be forced to reform the system and accept constitutional and democratic changes along the lines of what Iranians themselves define as proper for their own future. It is actually quite straightforward: instead of presenting itself as a threat, the US should again become a source of inspiration.

So, in that sense, this is a crucial moment in US-Middle East history. If a moderate and dialogue-seeking politician with an understanding of the challenges of the new world and with a renewed respect and consideration for rival states and their populations is elected, I dare say that conditions for improving US-Iran relations will be in place. Of course, we should remain perfectly aware that it takes much more than willingness to talk in order to ameliorate US-Iran relations. In the last 30 years since the Iranian occupation of the US embassy and in the last 55 years since the CIA-sponsored overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeq, many wounds have been inflicted on both sides, and it will take much more than diplomatic talks to patch them up. The road to dialogue, rapprochement and normalization will be beset by criticism and attempts to hinder progress from hard-liners on both sides, by frustrating stalemates and by much uncertainty. We might even see an escalation in the war of words before it gets better. However, dialogue will be worth it.

Last but not least, I would like to repeat that the ultimate goal with a US-Iran dialogue should be to enhance world security, to promote democratic values, to improve the lives of civilians and to protect human rights. In other words, the ultimate goal should not be to bring Iranian oil and gas back on the world market – it should be to help the Iranian people, the Middle East, the World and the role of US within it.

So, it goes without saying that it takes more than a new President to better relations – a change in attitude and policy is needed. However, with this reality check in place, I must say that I cannot help being optimistic. Even though the road ahead is extremely difficult and can be full of ugly surprises, this might actually be the window of opportunity that moderates and progressives on both sides have been hoping for. Let’s hope it is.