Though only about five percent of U.S. voters identified foreign policy as the most pressing concern in the recently-concluded presidential elections, the Obama administration is set to face a cocktail of outsized global challenges, ranging from containing the eurozone crisis to coping with China's growing assertiveness amid a sensitive leadership transition and reining in geopolitical tremors brought about by the popular uprisings across the Middle East.
However, it is arguably the Iranian nuclear impasse that will serve as the ultimate test of President Obama's foreign policy mettle. The Middle East is no stranger to conflicts, but an Iran-West confrontation (to check Tehran's nuclear ambitions) could spell an unimaginable destruction unbeknownst to modern history -- precisely why, today, Iran stands at the center of the global security agenda.
No longer handicapped by the cyclical pressures of his reelection bid, President Obama 2.0 is in a perfect position to finally build on his initial overtures to Iran. Back in 2009, the Obama administration made a half-baked effort to reach out to the Iranians, but the hurried and impatient attempt failed to appreciate Tehran's complex (and deliberative) structure of decision-making, especially on fundamental issues such as the nuclear program. Over succeeding years, Washington not only rejected attempts by third parties -- especially Turkey and Brazil -- to break the nuclear impasse, but it also engineered the world's most debilitating sanctions regime against any sovereign nation.
Yet President Obama's approach -- largely supported by the U.S. defense establishment -- has contained a crucial silver lining: A commitment to a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the crisis -- a point not lost on pragmatists within the Iranian regime.
Boosted by a convincing Electoral College victory over his republican rival, and relishing a 70 percent Jewish turnout in his favor, Obama 2.0 enjoys a minimum level of mandate to kick-start a meaningful and sincere process of negotiations with Tehran. Since he has in principle agreed to hold one-on-one talks with Iran, there is a growing possibility of an unprecedented Iran-U.S. talks coming into fruition in the near future, perhaps as early as the early months of next year or shortly after the Iranian presidential election in June.
With traditional conservatives -- under the guidance of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- in ascendancy, Washington has more or less a clear idea of whom it is (and should be) dealing with. So the stage is set for a real diplomatic showdown. President Obama's decision to visit Myanmar shortly -- in an attempt to encourage further political opening and democratic reform -- will only improve his profile (and skills set) as a global statesman, intent on resolving seemingly intractable foreign policy challenges.
Yet even if Obama is willing to negotiate, it will of course take two to tango. So, the question is whether the Iranians are up to the task: Is Tehran willing to make the necessary compromises -- from greater nuclear transparency to more stringent restrictions on its enrichment activities -- to reverse the economic siege that's pushing the country to the brink? And is it going to use talks as a delaying tactic, or will it finally strike a mutually acceptable deal with the West?
The Iranian regime is often characterized as a fundamentalist revisionist power, whose legitimacy -- and very identity -- is anchored in continued opposition to the West, especially Israel and the United States. Its rationality is often questioned on the grounds that its core leadership is composed of messianic individuals who don't conform to the logic of survival and self-preservation. Some commentators -- from American neo-conservatives to Israeli politicians -- go as far as to say Iran is willing to pursue its radical ideals to the point of destroying itself.
However, if there's one thing that is consistent about the Islamic Republic of Iran, it's the regime's undying instinct for self-preservation. Iran has consistently demonstrated self-restraint whenever it faced the prospect of external invasion and territorial defeat, especially in the face of a more powerful adversary: At the height of its revolutionary zeal, Iran agreed to end the American hostages crisis in 1982, signed on to U.N. Security Council Resolution 598, which concluded the Iran-Iraq War, and consistently avoided outright confrontation with U.S. forces during the turbulent 'tanker wars' years. In the post-war years, Iran acquiesced to and cooperated with coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran even went as far as entirely suspending its enrichment program in 2003, agreeing to an intrusive inspection regime, a so-called Additional Protocol (AP), to avoid confrontation with the Bush administration. Why? Because, the Iranian regime is anything but monolithic and the principle of expediency (Maslaha) is deeply embedded in its strategic mindset: even within the upper echelons of the politico-military leadership, pragmatic forces have always sought to prevent any crisis or conflict endangering the country's territorial integrity.
Bear in mind, Iran only stepped up its enrichment activities when negotiations with the Europeans -- since Bush shunned Iran for much of his presidency -- broke down, because the latter demanded a total halt of Iran's nuclear activities -- a red line for a any Iranian/revolutionary leader.
However, the situation is different now. Iran is contending with a debilitating sanctions regime that is punishing its whole economy. Meanwhile, there is a growing threat of unintended confrontation in the increasingly congested Persian Gulf, filled with an armada of Western and Iranian forces. Clearly, the status quo is becoming increasingly unsustainable, detrimental to both sides' interests.
No wonder the Iranian regime is now sending multiple signals, largely expressing a cautious optimism in the long-sought direct negotiations with Obama. Just after Obama's reelection, President Ahmadinejad stated that Iran and the U.S. should bilaterally resolve the nuclear issue, while the Speaker of Parliament (and potentially the next Iranian president) Mohammad-Javad Larijani reiterated that direct talks are "not taboo." Curiously, a report by Iran's intelligence agency even implicitly appreciated Obama's pro-diplomacy approach -- in contrast to the Israeli government and republicans -- and comparatively less stringent sanctions against Iran.
Crucially, in recent months Iran has converted a huge chunk of its medium-enriched uranium into harmless fuel rods and frozen the number of spinning centrifuges in the heavily-bunkered Fordow facility.
So, Iran is perhaps also preparing for a compromise.