Tehran is awash with fresh speculations about the intentions of the second Obama administration towards Iran, in the light of cabinet changes that portend a distinct possibility of a new, and more vigorous, "engage Iran" White House tryout in the coming months.
From Iran's point of view, during his first term, President Obama did not pursue a serious and well-thought of approach toward Iran, partly as a result of negative influence by certain members of his administration who did not share Obama's campaign pledge of engaging Iran in the trappings of bilateral diplomacy. As a result of multiple rounds of unilateral US sanctions against Iran, the ship of US-Iran diplomacy has moved in the opposite direction of total economic warfare and growing threats of military confrontation over Iran's disputed nuclear program.
But, with the nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, as the new secretaries of state and defense respectively, Tehran is now abuzz with the rare optimism that the US government may be getting serious about dialogue with Iran aimed at improving the troubled relations between the two countries.
True or not, Tehran's politicians and pundits are increasingly convinced that both senators Kerry and Hagel are genuinely interested in expanding the net of diplomacy with Iran and explore new venues for resolving the outstanding issues between US and Iran. It is therefore a sheer error on the part of some US pundits who have argued that Hagel's nomination in particular would cause further intransigence on Iran's part, presumably because Tehran would not take the military threat seriously as a result of Hagel's past statements regarding the infeasibility of the military option.
The trouble with such (obviously rushed) pre-judgments regarding the net effects of Hagel's nomination as the next Defense Secretary is that they are based on the questionable assumption of a nuclear Iran when, in fact, there is no 'smoking gun' to corroborate this and Iran's nuclear facilities are closely monitored by the IAEA (which has conducted dozens of short-notice inspections of the enrichment facilities).
Presently, Iran and the IAEA are making steady progress toward reaching a new modality for enhanced cooperation and the IAEA inspectors are due back in Tehran on January 16th. A successful Iran-IAEA meeting will undoubtedly have positive implications for the next round of Iran nuclear talks that are on the horizon and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in his recent visit to New Delhi has expressed Iran's readiness to sit down with the representatives of "5 +1" nations as early as later this month.
These, together with Iran's Foreign Ministry's positive reaction to Hagel's nomination, reflect an Iranian non-confrontational behavior and approach that is keen on the elements of reciprocity and mutual respect. Goodwill begets goodwill and there is, in fact, reason to be cautiously optimistic that the nuclear talks may yield a breakthrough as a result of genuine confidence-building steps by both sides.
A big question mark, however, exists regarding US western allies, above all Great Britain, who may not share the second Obama administration's propensity to rely on persuasive diplomacy. Without apt Washington leadership, the necessity of revamping the package of incentives to Iran, for the sake of a "face-saving" solution, may not materialize. Nor should we exclude the possibility that neither Russia nor China may be thrilled by the prospect of a thaw in US-Iran relations. What is important is for the policy-makers in Tehran and Washington to insulate themselves as much as possible from the role and influence of third parties impacting the context of US-Iran relations.
For sure, these relations are at a crucial crossroad now and with apt diplomacy can avoid the pitfall of descending on the wrong track of greater tensions and hostility. Paralleled to the current efforts between Iran and the IAEA, US and Iran may need to work out their own modality or framework for bilateral and multilateral dialogue, such as by adopting the framework of non-intervention in the 1981 Iran-US Algiers Accord, or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The latter, already agreed upon at last year's talks in Istanbul, provides the normative basis for discussing Iran's nuclear rights and obligations.
Lest we forget, even Senator Kerry in his 2009 interview with the Financial Times labeled the demands on Iran to forfeit its nuclear fuel cycle as "ridiculous." Yet, officially the US is still committed to the unworkable idea of "zero centrifuges" in Iran, despite occasional semi-official statements that convey the impression that the US is willing to recognize Iran's right to possess a fuel cycle as long as it is closely monitored by the UN atomic watchdog and is limited to low levels of enrichment.
Hopefully, what the new national security team in the second Obama administration will achieve would be an earnest attempt to close the cognitive gap between the actual policy and rhetoric that, as stated above, reflects a certain unhealthy chasm inimical to diplomatic breakthroughs in US-Iran relations. In the light of US's exit strategy in Afghanistan and the problems in Iraq, there is an inescapable need for a broad US-Iran dialogue that is not limited to the nuclear issue and covers regional security issues as well.
Yet, an important prerequisite for any progress on the rocky road of US-Iran is first of all to apply the precious past lessons of 'roads not taken', such as quick-fixes, impatient and inconsistent initiatives, and, second, to focus on areas of mutual interests. Only then we can legitimately raise our expectations about a timely, and much-needed, breaking of significant ice in the glacier of US-Iran hostility.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2005-2006), author of several books on Iran's foreign and nuclear policies.