Obama needs a Game-Changer on Iran

This was one of the most memorable lines from Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention: “…the greatest risk we can take is to try the same, old politics with the same, old players and expect a different result.”

Those of us who took him at his word hoped that he would apply this not only to domestic issues, but to foreign policy too. This author actually had the optimistic temerity to pen a piece imagining what the new president’s “new politics” toward Iran might look like, in an Alternet piece headlined, “What President Obama’s Letter to Iran Should Really Say.” Here is an excerpt from its conclusion:

Your interests and ours do not, and will not, always coincide, nor will we always view the challenges facing the world from the same perspective.  Nonetheless, Iranians and Americans need to speak with one another, to share ideas, to work together on issues about which we already agree in principle, and to learn from one another on those with which we are in accord in practice.  We can then, with mutual respect, build upon the relationship we have created to approach the more difficult issues — those that have locked our relationship into a confrontational dynamic for the past 30 years.

(An Iranian colleague informed me at the time that my letter, minus its byline, was e-mailed around Iran, sparking speculation as to whether or not Obama had written it himself!).

While my proposed Letter wasn’t exactly the same message that Obama transmitted to the Iranians during his 2009 Nowruz speech, there were sufficient resemblances between the two to offer, at least temporarily, some grounds for optimism:

We have serious differences that have grown over time.  My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.  This process will not be advanced by threats.  We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

But the president’s Iran policy was soon channeled toward the “the same old politics with the same old players.” Robert Gates stayed on as Secretary of Defense, minimizing any meaningful change in rhetoric or policy from the previous Bush years. Veterans of the Clinton administration, such as Dennis Ross, were recycled and brought on board to deal with Iran policy. Sanctions continued to be equated  with “diplomacy,” and cudgels confused with “carrots.”

Weeks before the 2012 US election, President Obama now finds himself in a situation where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has made no secret of his hope that Obama’s Republican rival will be elected in his stead — is attempting to play Obama’s puppet master. Netanyahu’s ultimatum: either the US issues a “clear red line” for an American attack on Iran that is acceptable to Israel, or the Israelis will strike Iran on their own. And if the Israelis start a war, the US president will have no choice but to back Israel by getting involved. There remains the politically untenable option of Obama declaring openly that the US and Israel are not on the same page and that the US will not back an Israeli strike on Iran, but in the current political environment, that is highly unlikely.

Is there any way out for Obama? According to Akiva Eldar, a senior political correspondent for Haaretz, there is. Obama should buck the hysteria from the right-wing in the US and Israel and go to Iran as Richard Nixon went to China in 1972:

Obama lost the battle long ago for Netanyahu’s fans in the U.S. Jewish community and among the Christian right. If the Iran issue was critical to the U.S. presidential election then Obama should have already started packing. Instead of trying to bring the Iranians to their knees, he can offer them a way up toward restoration of their self-respect. What does Obama have to lose by flying to Tehran to begin a dialogue about ending the nuclear arms race and stopping Iran’s support for terror organizations and for the genocide in Syria?

Eldar, who served as Haaretz’s US Bureau Chief and Washington correspondent from 1993-96, was recognized as one of the most prominent and influential commentators in the world by the Financial Times in 2006. In 2007 he received the annual “Search for Common Ground” award for Middle East journalism. He regularly appears on major television and radio networks in Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and has appeared on Nightline, the Charlie Rose Show and on CNN and CBS news programs. So it is significant when a seasoned Israeli commentator like Eldar suggests Obama give a reconciliation speech in Tehran that says:

“No single nation should pick and choose which country holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations possess nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I’m hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal” (from Obama’s remarks in Cairo on June 4, 2009 ).

Eldar’s op-eds appear in The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Jewish Week. Will this one make its way into the American press? It’s a groundbreaking article that deserves more widespread attention than it has thus far received, especially from President Obama, who really needs a game-changer on Iran to stave off disaster.

As candidate Obama said back in 2008, “the greatest risk we can take is to try the same, old politics with the same, old players and expect a different result.”

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. I think Obama can responnd to Bibi’s blackmail by asking him for a firm commitment for peace with Palestinians. He should rub off the settlements and human rights issues and dodging of negotiating with PA on Bibi’s face. A commitment for a commitment. He can also ask for a nuclear-free zone in Middle East. Why does Bibi want to hold on to the nuclear arms? Is he keeping them to use someday?

  2. Mr. Obama needs a game-changer indeed! Bibi is not a partner Mr. Obama can deal with in any venue – which leaves Iran! However, thanks to Mrs. Clinton and his trusted guru Mr. Ross, the Administration has backed itself into a corner and faces the danger of looking silly and disparate if the overture is not executed properly.

    Mr. Obama needs a strong and public display of initiative, but Mr. Obama can’t go to Iran. He cannot send Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Ross. Mr. Obama needs to send an American with “credentials” to Iran, someone Iranians can trust, and someone with enough credit that Neocons can’t easily diminish by attacking him/her. Who would that be? Colin Powell? Ron Paul?

  3. The US president is unable to do anything regarding Israel, simply because of the existence of a dragon called “AIPAC” and the Israeli agents in US Congress and of course the neocons who are ready to punish the president if he deviates from the Israel’s dictates. The media will take the Israel’s side and will try to discredit our president.

  4. You say Obama needs a game-changer on Iran to stave off disaster. What disaster? It’s pretty clear that Israel will launch no strike on Iran…and all this talk of striking Iran can now play the role of ‘strategic deception.’ In the near future Israel will instead strike Syria’s air force and Scuds which are the proximate threat to Israel in the event that later there will be, finally, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Strategically Israel must do things in their proper order…first secure the northern flank, including decimating Hezbollah’s rocket forces if need be, by taking advantage of the turmoil in Syria. Disarm the Syrian state’s offensive capability and use the excuse of having to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons dumps as the pretext. But wait a little longer to do this. Each passing week of civil war in Syria renders the Syrian air force and Scuds less operational and less protected. This is a golden opportunity for Israel, and it will be supported by the US as a present strike on Iran may not. And by taking care of Syria first, rendering it impotent for many years to come, Israel strikes indirectly at Iranian power in the region. It all makes sense to start with Syria.

  5. The problem with any sort of gesture toward Iran is the NPT: it guarantees the right of Iran to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

    Unfortunately Iranian nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is simply unacceptable to Israel. Any nuclear activity in Iran carries with it the risk that Iran might some day decide to weaponize, and that’s a risk Israel’s (current) leaders, and their fans in the United States, simply are not willing to accept.

    The NPT is unacceptable to Israel.

    Obama cannot defy Israel by pointing to the NPT. Netanyahu will simply say that the NPT doesn’t matter, that Iran cannot be permitted to have any nuclear technology on the grounds that they are religious lunatics.

    But the rest of the world is not unhappy with the NPT and is not keen to see an “Israeli dual exception” carved out- an exception which allows Israel to keep secret nuclear weapons, while at the same time exercising a worldwide veto on which other countries can have any nuclear technology at all.

    This is the rock and the hard place for any American administration. The Israeli position is clearly untenable if not simply irrational. But AIPAC will move to destroy any American politician who confirms that the Iranians have the right to nuclear energy. To keep his job Obama and any of his successors have to continue to gloss over that point and hope the the Iranians give up nuclear technology of their own accord.

    In the meantime there’s hardly any prospect of negotiations in good faith. The US is not in a position to respect what most of the world thinks Iran is entitled to do under the NPT.

    So what can Obama offer? Nothing.

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