During the 2008 United States presidential campaign, Barack Obama distanced himself from George Bush’s Middle East adventures and was given ample electoral space by his opponent, John McCain, who famously sung “bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys tune.
So Obama promised to engage Tehran. In truth, this hardly represented a departure in US foreign policy, as Washington has dealt diplomatically with many of its adversaries for decades. The Obama administration did join brief talks with Iran in October 2009 as part of the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), and there was even a face-to-face meeting between William Burns, US under secretary of state, and Saaed Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.
More substantive talks over Iraq, begun under the Bush presidency, helped foster tacit understandings allowing both Washington and Tehran to support Nouri al-Maliki’s government. But Obama has proved unable or unwilling to engage Iran more widely. Instead, sanctions against Tehran, and against companies or countries trading with Iran, have been tightened.
Historians will no doubt argue as to why. Engagement was opposed from the outset by the Israelis, who milked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s theatrics on the Jewish holocaust as further justification for bolstering their arsenal, building more walls and attacking Palestinian “terrorists”.
And the protests after the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election, and the authorities’ crackdown on dissent, exposed proponents of engagement in the US to charges of “appeasement” or worse.
Recent months have surely sounded the death-knell of Obama’s “engagement” policy. In August, the administration castigated Iran for backing the “brutal and unjust crackdown” in Syria, after earlier imposing sanctions on two senior Iranian policemen for allegedly advising Damascus on curbing protests.
In July, the US “designated” six alleged Al Qaeda operatives for running through Iran what a US treasury press release called the “core pipeline” for Al Qaeda’s “money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia”. According to David Cohen, the under secretary for “terrorism and financial intelligence”, there had been “a secret deal” between Tehran and Al Qaeda.
The point of the exercise was likely more to up the ante on Iran than to sound alarms about Al Qaeda. Among the more fanciful claims about the relationship was a quote in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard from a “senior administration official” saying that “the most ready cadre” of Al Qaeda “operative types and senior-level managers” were in Tehran.
Of course sanctions targeting these men will have little effect, and only one of the six designated individuals was described as being “Iran-based”. Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil was said to have liaised with the Iranian government over the release of Al Qaeda operatives, presumably a reference back to the men detained by Iran soon after 9/11 as they fled American forces in Afghanistan. Since then, many of these detainees have been repatriated — to Saudi Arabia in many cases.
A leading politician in Tehran once told me that Iran’s basic strategy vis-à-vis Al Qaeda was to scheme and pray that the organization would be active elsewhere, and this continues to hold water. Even without violent Salafis who despise Shia as heretics, Iran is nervous over its Sunni minorities, principally the Kurds and the Baluchis.
Given all this, a more serious sign of growing US-Iran tension may be Washington’s allegations of Tehran orchestrating attacks in Iraq on American forces as their withdrawal looms in December. In seeking confirmation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey warned the Senate last month of a possible huge attack in Iraq similar to the 1983 bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut.
Of course, Iranian officials are well aware of the unpopularity within Iraq of the US presence and feel that time is on their side. Tehran has been more successful than Washington in developing relations with Iraq’s various groups and factions, and knows well that the broad brush of the US right, and the Israelis, hardly suits the terrain.
GARETH SMYTH has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran