The first thing that Barack Obama has to understand about Iran: there is no hurry.
The hawks outside the administration, and a few of those who might be inside — notably, Dennis Ross — will say that the situation is a crisis. They will argue that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon that will change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. And they will ring the Holocaust alarm bells that Iran will use the A-bomb to obliterate Israel. None of this is true. Obama has years to deal with Iran.
As a candidate, and as president-elect, Obama has declared his intention to open a dialogue with Tehran. Certainly, he will make a sincere offer of talks. But such talks are unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough. They could start, break off, re-start, and again be suspended. It’s possible that a US-Iran dialogue could take two years or more to make progress. That’s why Obama will have to ignore the hawks, who will say — at the first sign of trouble — that the talks aren’t working. And they will argue that Iran must be confronted with harsh economic sanctions, a blockade, or military action. Obama must resist these calls. He will have to ignore angry rhetoric from Iran, especially from its own hawks, who will issue thunderous denunciations of the United States. The new US administration will have to be prepared for a long, bumpy road in its dialogue with Iran.
The fact is that Iran’s nuclear program is still in a research stage. It has acquired a quantity of low-enriched uranium, but none of the uranium can be used for a bomb. Before it can be used for military purposes, it will have to be enriched to weapons-grade, a long and laborious process that Iran cannot hide from inspectors from the IAEA. (Alternatively, Iran could expel the IAEA team, which would not only make its intentions obvious but would result in a public relations disaster for Tehran.) Even if Iran further enriches the uranium it has, it will have enough for only one bomb, i.e., not enough to test a weapon and not enough — according to military experts — to provide it with credible threat. In addition, Iran may not have the technological know-how to actually construct a weapon, even if does manage to acquire weapons-grade uranium. And Iran does not, at present, have the ability to deliver a weapon.
For all those reasons, Obama can take his time.
The more important question is: What should be the US agenda for the talks? Advocates of a Grand Bargain, such as Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, suggest forcefully that the talks should cover the entire spectrum of issues in the US-Iranian relationship: Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism and Al Qaeda, Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, US recognition of Iran’s security interests in the Gulf, and an end to threats of subversion, covert action, and regime change against Iran. Others, such as Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh, suggest a somewhat more modest agenda, with talks on several tracks involving US-Iran diplomatic ties, the nuclear issue, Iran’s role in the region, and, of course, Iraq. At the very least, Obama will have to go far beyond the Bush administration’s contacts with Iran, which have been limited to talks about the war in Iraq.
It’s not clear how Iran will respond to offers of talks by the Obama administration. Iran has its own presidential elections coming up, and real negotiations may have to wait for the internal political situation in Iran to resolve itself. Even if the US offer to talk is sincere, Iran’s mullahs and hardliners may have to strut, preen, and bluster before they accept. Again, Obama has time enough to let them do so. With the price of oil hovering around $40 per barrel, Iran has lost a great deal of its advantage in 2008, and its economic problems are dire. Iran needs peace on its borders, and it needs US and Western technology to rebuild its oil industry and to construct refineries and that can provide it with gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products that it now imports.
It’s true that Iran’s leaders — especially Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who wields vast, near-dictatorial power — may not exactly be clear-eyed about the position they are in. Few of the clerical elite that runs the country are educated beyond the religious schools in Qom and Mashad, and most of them have not traveled outside the country. Many of them are intoxicated by the mistaken belief that their version of fundamentalist Shiism has an appeal to religious Muslims outside Iran, and that Iran is somehow the center of Islam — which it is, decidedly, not. And Iran’s leaders have be reading too much into recent regional successes: They feel emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which eliminated two of Iran’s local enemies. And they’ve used their support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank to push for expanded influence in the Arab world. But at bottom Iran is a weak and impoverished country that is severely isolated around the world and facing determined opposition from many of its neighbors. During my visit to Iran last March, it wasn’t clear that Iran’s leaders understand how weak a hand they hold.
It will be Obama’s job to seek to establish improved relations with Iran, based on US and Iranian mutual interests, while dealing with Iran’s troublesome and problematic leaders in a sophisticated manner. It won’t be easy. It may take a long time.