Talking with the Enemy

03/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Fowler Mr. Fowler is a retired CIA Officer and a Middle East specialist.

President Obama's first official interview was not with a U.S. outlet, but, instead, with the popular Arabic cable TV network Al-Arabiya. This is a message meant to signal that change is coming to a host of critical foreign policy issues facing the nation. While domestic issues -- notably the economic Stimulus Package -- are by necessity front and center now, it seems clear that the international scene -- especially the Middle East -- will not long take a back seat in this administration.

Among these is one of the most vexing issues the president will face; how and when to engage Iran. The President's initial attempts at outreach, statements of intent really, have been met by a variety of reactions from the Iranian side, some positive, some negative and in most cases contradictory. This is very much Iranian politics as usual. It is clear that the election of President Obama caught the Iranian leadership by surprise and they are still coming to terms with what this might mean for U.S./Iran relations, as well as how best to use this to their advantage.

There is little question whether the U.S. should engage Iran diplomatically - the answer is a resounding yes. However, the question of timing -- of when to engage -- is slightly more complicated. The answer is that engagement should begin as soon as it is possible for official dialogue with Iran to yield real benefits. This may take time given the significant mistrust and misunderstanding present on both sides. There are sure to be feints and false starts, particularly from the Iranian side as the Supreme leader develops a response to this new dynamic. Without a doubt, his initial moves will be cautious and tentative, and at times, seemingly contradictory. In the end, we will need to be both patient and persistent.

Lastly, we will need to fine tune our listening skills if we are to succeed. Any attempt at approaching Iran in hopes of "changing their behavior" will require that we address the issues important to Iran and not just focus on those of interest to us. This sounds simplistic but in the case of Iran, where communication has been sorely lacking and our disagreements appear to significantly outweigh our mutual interests, it will be key. While we have been working through the transition and addressing the immediate needs of the American economy, the Iranians have filled the void in an attempt to control the message and drive the agenda. It behooves us to listen to what they are saying, if only to understand with what issues we should be prepared to deal.

Iran is a complicated nation and the U.S. needs to proceed cautiously yet expeditiously. We're seeing the contradictions inherent in Iran play themselves out in the Iranian government's various and shifting reactions to-date to President Obama.

In a personal letter to the just elected U.S. President, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gently chided Obama to learn from the failures of his predecessor and follow a new course on Middle East and US-Iran policy. While initial reaction by the Iranian Majles (Parliament) to the letter was to criticize Ahmadinejad harshly for sending it -- likely driven by his political opponents' desire to deny him any credit should US-Iran relations actually improve. This was followed the next day by an immediate about face whereby some of the same MPs praised the letter as a positive move, no doubt in response to corrective guidance from on high, i.e., the Supreme Leader.

A corresponding level of contradiction can also be found throughout Iranian media coverage of the new U.S. President and the implicit potential for change in U.S.-Iranian relations. Who would have thought the ultra-conservative Iranian Resalat newspaper would ever postulate on the potential benefits of expanded engagement between the U.S. and Iran, but that is exactly what happened.

In a November 2008 editorial, Resalat outlined a virtual roadmap for improved relations, seemingly aimed at both Iranian and American domestic audiences. Given the article's relatively reasonable and practical tone, particularly in relation to the realities of U.S.-Israeli relations, one could be forgiven for considering it as both a potential template for a working policy document on how to approach Iran-U.S. relations as well as de facto encouragement to do so. In the article, the author sends messages to both sides in this issue. To the Iranian audience, "The expectation that the U.S. president would choose an anti-Zionist position (at least under the current situation) is an absurd one"; and, "Our diplomacy must not--as has been the previously negative judgment--threaten the opportunity that is provided by the replacement of Bush with Obama, or indifferently let it pass by. We should take advantage of this situation and use it to further our interests, but without an unreasonable level of optimism or pessimism."

For those who understand the nuances, it is clear that Iran is sending out signals, via multiple channels, that it is interested at the highest levels in engaging with the only country that it believes matters -- the United States. At the same time, however, Iranian leadership feels, not without some justification, that they are finally dealing from a position of relative strength, thus they are making it very clear that they will expect that Iran's strategic interests will be part of any dialogue, from the beginning.

While the United States is not currently in the strongest of positions, neither are we devoid of any trump cards. Iran is itself quite vulnerable on a number of fronts. The nightmare scenario for Iranian hardliners is that the United States implements a cogent, comprehensive policy that acknowledges and addresses Iran's legitimate national security and economic interests, thereby putting to the test Iranian willingness to respond.

The real Achilles heel of Iran's Clerical regime, however, is the overall poor state of the Iranian economy. The fact is that the regime is simply not meeting the day-to-day needs of the population at large. Special interests and Khodi (insiders) prosper while the typical Iranian family struggles. High oil prices were previously a mitigating factor, but with their decline the pressure is now swiftly building.

The Iranian people have demonstrated that they can tolerate living with fewer civil or social freedoms than they (or we) might like. However, trying to feed and house their families and educate their children is increasingly out of reach. This is a problem whose deepening severity can be laid largely at the feet of the policies of the top leadership. Internal political developments already point to an increasingly acrimonious domestic debate on these very economic issues, and the upcoming Iranian Presidential election in 2009 will only accelerate this trend.

Iran's leadership is aware of the stakes and has wasted no time. They have seized the initiative and staked out the high ground by articulating Iranian interests and expectations for the Obama administration to consider for any approach to have a chance of success. They are moving to control the message and define the issues to be discussed, placing the U.S. administration at a disadvantage by forcing them to respond to issues already on the table.

Let's hope President Obama is reading all of the messages they are sending -- and is crafting ones of his own that will serve the long term interests of the U.S. with a nation as complicated and contradictory as Iran.