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One of the key foreign policy challenges of the Barack Obama presidency will be to elaborate a new approach towards Iran. A spirited, informed debate is already on in Washington – where a special presentation to the Senate has outlined crucial American and Iranian points of view; and also in academic and diplomatic circles, as a Joint Experts’ Statement on Iran recommends the President-elect adopts a bold new strategy, focused on dialogue and mutual respect.

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Obama and Iran

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST, TRNN: How shall the Obama presidency deal with Iran? In terms of finally establishing a rational framework of discussion, the jockeying for position is already on. In Washington the National Iranian American Council has sponsored a special presentation to the Senate on change one can believe in as far as the future of US-Iran policy is concerned. And in a joint statement, a group of top scholars, experts, and diplomats recommends replacing regime change in Iran with a long-term strategy allowing Iran its due place in shaping the future of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and seriously discussing the Iranian nuclear dossier with no preconditions—in sum, everything the Bush administration has adamantly refused to do. Here, according to an American and an Iranian point of view, is what president-elect Barack Obama should be focusing on.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: Let me offer four modest recommendations. The first is on timing: the president doesn’t want to waste his time negotiating with a president that may be thrown out of power because of his dismal performance in both economic sphere and domestic policy sphere. Two, that does not mean you don’t engage Iran. You do it multilaterally; you do it as part of the other urgent agendas that you have, in particular stabilizing Iraq and winning the war in Afghanistan. Third, clarify intentions. President Obama should make clear that the United States has no intention of overthrowing the regime in Iran. I believe the best way to seek regime change in Iran is not to seek regime change.

DR. FARIDEH FARHI, UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII: Deadlines and red lines don’t work with Iranians. No matter how much you try, they will not work, because of the structure of the Iranian political system and the nature of the Iranian political system. If you have been watching Iranian politics in the past two weeks, you can see, you know, where ministers being impeached, a new minister barely losing in the election, literally fights in the Parliament. You can understand that even within the power structure there is tremendous conflict and competition. Let us say that the current leaders of Iran just disappear for a variety of reason. This society that includes so many different factions, what do people expect? That those factions will just go home and suddenly elect a new leader that is wonderful? You cannot open a Pandora’s Box in ways and completely ignore the domestic dynamics of the country through tremendous foreign pressure and assume that the end result will be good. I listen to the speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran, and there is never a time where he does not talk about the fact that “We do not want to be the servants of the United States.” The language of servancy is a very, very powerful language within the context of Iranian politics and its history of tortured relationship with the outside world. Iran is neither pre-invasion Iraq nor Libya. Iran is a country that is much closer—and I know that people are going to be shocked at this—but in terms of characteristics, to India. It’s a very complex political system. You can never influence it from outside. Sustained relationship with it, with such a country, will eventually allow external forces to have an impact, but not determine the policy direction of the country.

CIRINCIONE: There are many areas where you could have discussions that could be productive, that could give the pragmatists in the Iranian political structure some idea of the benefits that one gets by easing tensions with the United States, and then you are in a better position to engage directly in the nuclear talks. My hypothesis is that the Iranian regime has not yet reached a consensus on whether they want nuclear weapons, but they have reached a consensus on pursuing the acquisition of technologies that could put them in a position to build nuclear weapons in the relatively near future should they decide to do so.

FARHI: On the question of pressures, this argument about increasing both the pressures and incentives is based on the premise, okay, that the Iranians will ultimately, if the pressure is hard enough, the elements within the Iranian government that are pragmatic enough, that will convince the hardliners to give in. Okay? I’m just trying to tell you in a competitive political environment that’s a no-no. This kind of talk has actually strengthened the Ahmadinejad government. The speaker of the Parliament, Mr. Ali Larijani, after listening to Mr. Obama’s press conference in which Mr. Obama acknowledged the receipt of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter—and I think it’s important to acknowledge that he has written a letter of congratulations, and that’s also a signal. But after listening to him, Mr. Obama, saying that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapons program—and obviously that’s something the Iranians don’t like to hear, the language of nuclear weapons instead of nuclear energy program—Mr. Larijani has actually said, “If Mr. Obama is going to talk in the same way as before and not approach the issue strategically, there is absolutely no reason to have a conversation.”


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Farideh Farhi is an Iranian independent researcher associated with the University of Hawaii. She has also taught at the University of Tehran and the University of Boulder and is the author of States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua. The World Bank will soon publish her study on governance and reform in Iran.

Joseph Cirincione is the President of the Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution. He is a former vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats (Carnegie Endowment, second edition 2006). He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.