Could Barack Obama’s re-election as US President allow an early diplomatic breakthrough with Iran? The confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions is the most pressing foreign policy problem on the President’s plate. And his re-election does make a difference.
It would be idle to talk of dramatic initiatives, of Obama acting as Nixon did with China, and flying out to embrace the Ayatollah on the tarmac. Inspiring though the thought of some great diplomatic gesture might be, the US public has been too bombarded with demonising rhetoric about Iran ever to accept an initiative that might end in humiliating rebuff. Obama has gone too far down the road of tightening sanctions to do a complete about face now, even if it was in his nature to do so.
As Tehran is widely blamed – not altogether fairly – for supporting President Assad in the Syrian civil war and stirring up Hezbollah in Lebanon, now is hardly the best time for a US leader to show favour towards it.
In any case, Tehran is embroiled in its own internal power struggles which pit President Ahmadinejad against the Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Khamenei, so it is very much a moot point as to how it might respond to any gesture on Washington’s part. With as much pride as America’s, the Iranians are more than capable of shooting themselves in the foot by taking an offer of talks as a sign of weakness.
And yet there are solid reasons for believing that a breakthrough could be managed. One is the lessening threat of unilateral action by Israel. Having thrown himself so wholeheartedly in support of Mitt Romney, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can hardly call in any favours from the White House. If Obama, who clearly dislikes the Israeli premier personally, were to give him the cold shoulder now, the much-vaunted US Israeli lobby could hardly complain .
Even if it were not so, the steady drumbeat of former Israeli generals and Mossad chiefs coming out in public to say an airstrike on Iran would be madness suggests that Netanyahu hasn’t the support at home that he needs for taking his country to war on this issue.
At the same time, there are also intriguing signs that Tehran is looking for a compromise. In the general din of a US election, little notice has been taken of them. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in between taunting Americans with Holocaust denial, came out with an important and apparently serious suggestion at the UN meeting last September that Iran would be willing to suspend uranium enrichment under certain conditions.
More surprising still, the Ministry of Intelligence in Iran has come out this week with a document emphasising the benefits of negotiation and warning of the dangers of military escalation. It may not be radical in its suggestions but its tone is distinctly pacific.
You could put these signals down to the pressure of sanctions on the country, which are becoming more and more burdensome. And you can argue that they are meaningless in the context of the shifting sands of politics in the country.
But the regime is worried, and not just about the currency crisis, the pain of falling oil revenues and rising import prices. The very fact that its internal politics have become more precarious whilst its regional standing has been undermined by the Arab Spring may well make it feel that now is the time to mend fences with the West.
Obama’s victory provides the opportunity. Given the alternatives, it would be irresponsible if he didn’t at least test the waters.
What’s so good about democracy?
All the comparisons between how America elects its leader and China appoints one rather miss the point. There is a world of political difference between a growing country and a contracting one. In the former case, it doesn’t really matter what kind of politics you have, democratic or authoritarian.
However, once the economy turns, the politics grow more important and more difficult. Democracy should be preferable because it stands a better chance of reconciling competing claims on a diminishing pot.
But then, looking at the politics of Europe or the US election, one might well conclude the opposite – that democracies find austerity more difficult to cope with than authoritarian regimes do.
Perhaps the Chinese Communist Party can manage things better from the centre. Listening to the speech of the retiring President, Hu Jintao, at the congress in Beijing on Wednesday, with its references to social harmony and improved living standards, you could have been listening to Obama.
The one difference was the emphasis Hu put on rooting out corruption. We don’t hear any of that in the West. Maybe we should.