During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama indicated his willingness to engage with Iran over the nuclear issue without preconditions; in other statements he maintained that he would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. The urgency of the Iranian nuclear challenge – emphasized by Iran's steady progress not only on uranium enrichment but on missile development as well – means that the Obama administration will have to move beyond general guidelines and make a concentrated effort to consolidate its policy on Iran as quickly as possible. And yet, one month into his presidency, Obama's advisors are saying that this is likely to take weeks if not months to achieve. Not only does the administration seem in no hurry to address this pressing foreign policy challenge, but statements that are emerging in the meantime are underscoring a message of confusion and indecision.
In discussing his approach to Iran in an interview one week into his presidency, President Obama repeated the image that he had offered in his inaugural speech of an outstretched US hand of diplomacy to countries like Iran, if they agree to "unclench their fist." In other words, this is an offer of engagement on condition that Iran soften its policies. But is Obama referring to the nuclear issue?
Taken together with later statements, there is a growing sense that Obama is actually attaching more importance to initiating dialogue with Iran than to resolving the nuclear crisis. The idea that the US must engage Iran directly was originally promoted in the immediate context of the need to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions, but for Obama this original objective appears less and less at the forefront. In fact, repairing relations with Iran is sounding more like the primary aim, whereas discussing the US's displeasure with Iran's nuclear activities is relegated to one of the points on the agenda of prospective talks. In his first White House press conference on February 9 Obama said that his national security team is reviewing Iran policy and looking for areas where he can have constructive dialogue with Iran so that they can begin to engage. The New York Times pointed out that while Obama noted that support for terrorist organizations is unacceptable and that nuclear development would spark further destabilizing proliferation in the Middle East, he did not repeat campaign statements that he would never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon or the capability to build one.
Obama gives the impression that he wants to be both soft and tough on Iran at the same time, but this is not likely to work. Moreover, the most urgent order of business with regard to Iran is the nuclear crisis and finding the most effective way to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear state. In this sense, beyond the image of an extended hand, what does Obama have in mind in for Iran? More importantly, what is the nature of the (un)clenched fist, and at what point will this accompanying condition to the extended hand come into play in the overall process of trying to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state?
Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton have in recent weeks been a little clearer on this issue. From statements issued by these officials, the unclenched fist seems to refer at least to Iran halting its uranium enrichment activities. Clinton clarified this point when she attempted to reassure European allies that the US did not intend to abandon previous multilateral efforts with regard to Iran. She noted that "President Obama has signaled his intention to support tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, but if Tehran does not comply with UN Security Council and IAEA mandates, there must be consequences." In his address to the Munich Security Conference, Biden made a statement in the same vein, adding that Iran must abandon not only its nuclear ambitions, but its support for terrorism as well.
But even if there is some measure of clarity regarding what Iran must do to unclench its fist, there is still the thorny issue of timing. In this regard, neither Clinton nor Biden provides any direction: they both mention that the US will be tough if Iran doesn't comply with certain conditions, but say nothing about the more precise mechanics of implementing the conditionality. Will the US enter negotiations and then assess Iran's degree of cooperation, or will it insist on indications of a changed Iranian attitude before entering negotiations? When will the US get tough? These crucial questions remain unanswered.
Because Obama insists on an approach that is different from the Bush administration, anything sounding like a "precondition" to dialogue will probably not be embraced, even though Clinton's promise to uphold previous multilateral efforts seems to imply continued adherence to the precondition that Iran cease uranium enrichment activities. After all, the Europeans have been as clear on this point as the US since the summer of 2006. If the new administration is in fact tending toward the "wait and see" approach, this could have dire consequences for any negotiation with Iran: while it may sound reasonable to first demonstrate accommodation – the outstretched hand – and then move to harsh measures only if Iran leaves no choice, in practice this will be very difficult to pull off. Once the sides become engaged in dialogue, making the call that "Iran is not serious" is not as easy as it might sound. Iran is very adept at going through the motions of dialogue, including sporadic indications of a more cooperative attitude, in order to buy time for its nuclear program but with no intention of actually moving toward a deal. In this way, "wait and see" negotiations can actually help Iran achieve its goal.
In dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, attention must also be directed to Iran's calculations, and in particular to the sobering reality that Iran has no rational reason for being any more willing to negotiate seriously with the US today than it was when negotiating with the EU-3 in the past. The only factor that might change Iran's calculation is if it begins to feel very uncomfortable with the status quo, and this is where pressure comes into the equation. The toughness that the US needs to demonstrate should not be understood as an alternative to dialogue, rather as a step toward more effective engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue. The logical sequence for those facing Iran is first to create tremendous pressure – through strong sanctions and other financial measures as well as credible threats and indications of a willingness to apply military measures – and then begin negotiations. A much less confident Iran is likely to be much more amenable to actually reaching a deal.