Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has repeatedly accused Barack Obama of wanting to negotiate with Iran's infamous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hoping to paint a picture of the likely Democratic presidential nominee as naive because of his willingness to open dialogue with U.S. adversaries.
Obama's speech at AIPAC last week may have put McCain's claim to rest. Obama, in an effort to move himself from the left to the center of Democratic Party, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything." Yet he still maintained that he would like to see the United States "open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the potential for progress." He clarified his position on discussions with Iran by stating that "as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing," with emphasis on "the appropriate Iranian leader."
Yet, the actions of each nation's president do not necessarily reflect widely held views within those nations. The general perception is that negotiations with Iran mean talks with Ahmadinejad, whose series of controversial remarks about Israel and the Holocaust have angered many Americans.
In Iran's political system, the president is second in command to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Ayatollah is the commander in chief and has the last say in foreign policy, law reform, nuclear programs, defense doctrine, and even cultural and social policies.
Ahmadinejad and his supporters may actually fancy a U.S. military strike and continuation of Bush's confrontational policies through a McCain administration, in hopes of strengthening their power within Iran by rallying all factions behind the flag.
Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, it was Khamenei who allowed Iranian diplomats to sit side by side with Americans in Germany to talk about the future of Afghanistan. However, in return for this cooperation, Iran was inducted into the "axis of evil" club.
It was Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who authorized three rounds of direct talks between Iranian diplomats and Americans over the security issues in Baghdad last year.
Again, this January, it was Khamenei who expressed willingness to restore diplomatic relations with the United States as soon as hostilities between the two nations abated. "I would be the first one to support these relations," state radio quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying. "Of course we never said the severed relations were forever."
Negotiations are unlikely to occur before Iran's next presidential election in 2009 for fear that Ahmadinejad could use them to his advantage in a re-election campaign.
Khamenei does not seek these negotiations because he desires U.S.-Iran relations, but rather he seeks them more out of necessity. Iran's economy is fragile: It suffers from the highest rate of inflation in the Middle East and a lack of foreign investment. It is stymied by the threat of an American attack, and increasing pressure from Arab countries concerned about Iran's growing regional power. Iranians cannot count on their Arab playing cards (Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi militia groups) forever. Iran's Shiite allies in the Middle East identify themselves as Arabs (rivals of the Persian Iranians) first, and then as Shiites, indicating that their support of Iran will only be lukewarm. In order to overcome these domestic and regional obstacles, Iran must end the no-peace-no-war situation with the United States. Otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous.
Obama's willingness to open talks with Iran suggests that he, unlike McCain, recognizes this reality -- and that his foreign policy approach is far from naïve. By opening a dialogue with Khamenei, the next U.S. president could seriously undermine general international perceptions of Ahmadinejad's power, while bringing Iran and the United States closer to reconciliation.
First published in the San Francisco Chronicle today.