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Candidate Obama v President Obama

by ARASH KARAMI

12 Jul 2010 18:0720 Comments

On Iran, President Obama should take road less traveled.

20100210-obama.jpg[ opinion ] Obama's speech prior to signing new Iran sanctions into law was met with rounds of applause and even laughter. Could he have been any possible president? A George W. or H.W. Bush, a John McCain, a Bill or Hilary Clinton? I wondered if that bookishly smart, mesmerizing, articulate candidate would recognize this very staid and ordinary president.

During the Democratic primaries, candidate Obama dared admit that he would meet with leaders from Iran "without preconditions," a proclamation that became a hot sound bite and fodder for Hilary Clinton's no-experience assault. As the 24-hour news networks either chastised or worshiped Obama, no one bothered ask if the leaders of Iran would be willing to meet with him.

Given that since the Islamic Revolution Iranian politics have been founded on defiant anti-Americanism, a summit featuring Iranian leaders and an American president seems farfetched.

Iran's political system is as cutthroat as any, and appearing onstage with its archenemy is political suicide. Former President Khatami traveling in 2006 to America drew the right's ire, as hardliners condemned the visit, some insisting he lose his religious credentials.

Iranian officials however seem willing to meet on security and drug trafficking issues concerning Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the Iranians did assist in the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

For pragmatic reasons they appear determined never again to be sandwiched between two hostile governments. Losing half a million lives in the Iran-Iraq war and nearly staging a war with the Taliban after the execution of nine Iranian diplomats in 1998 are grim reminders of what can happen when not engaged with their neighbors. Regardless, any good will established with the United States as a result of cooperation turned to bitterness when President Bush included Iran in his "Axis of Evil" speech.

But that was President Bush, and this is supposedly the era of Change.

Up to this point, however, President Obama seems content one-upping President Bush on increasing severe sanctions, even while refraining from Bush's penchant for gunslinger tough talk.

The new sanctions, which passed 99 to 0 in the Senate and 408 to 8 in the House, were rather slim in the human rights department and guaranteed that Iranians, rich or poor, will now have to wait in even longer lines for gas.

As embarrassing as it may be, the world's 4th largest producer of crude oil has yet to refine that oil into large enough amounts of gasoline to meet its domestic needs. Instead, it exports crude and imports gas from primarily European and Indian firms. But talk of these sanctions early in the year have allowed Iran to stockpile a four-month supply. Still, even these reserves will eventually run dry.

Other sanctions include restrictions that deal with Iranian banks and insurers who insure Iranian cargo ships. These sanctions are meant to go after Iranian companies involved in Iran's nuclear program. How insurers can differentiate between a cargo ship controlled by the Revolutionary Guards and one containing, say, medicine, has yet to be explained. And given Iran's recent counter tactics, including changing the names of its vessels to appear British, these sanctions may be more difficult still to execute.

NIAC, the National Iranian American Council, erroneously, in my opinion, called these sanctions "crippling." I would call them the first-ever green sanctions. "Green" not for the political opposition party in Iran, but for the environmental effect it will have on Tehran's grossly polluted air.

With no gasoline, and thus no cars to clog Tehran's streets and highways, it will be a matter of weeks after supplies run out that Tehran's air becomes breathable again. And who knows, maybe Tehranis will take to bicycling like the Dutch.

At the same time, the bill places travel restrictions on Iranian human-rights abusers and forbids companies to sell Iran so-called "repressive technology" used to monitor the population and jam foreign satellite channels. Although these are positive steps, some groups, like NIAC, say they do not go far enough and should give explicit permission for NGOs to help promote democratic objectives inside Iran.

The larger question, however, remains: With these sanctions, what is expected to change?

The leaders of North Korea, Iraq, and Cuba weathered sanctions in their own unique ways that kept the respective leaderships in power. For while the human toll of sanctions is indubitable, American legislators and presidents must be concerned with U.S. interests.

Earlier this year, President Obama retained the nuclear first-strike policy towards Iran, insuring that he would stop at nothing to protect American citizens, or interests. And who could forget then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 60 Minutes stating, "We think the price is worth it," when informed that the U.N. estimated 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of sanctions?

According to the 2004 Iraq Survey Group, Saddam stopped his nuclear program following the first Gulf war, but retained the ability to restart the program. North Korea, despite sanctions, has developed a nuclear program according to the CIA. If Iran follows the lead of its Axis-of-Evil siblings, then their nuclear program may be impeded or delayed, but not eliminated, as a result of sanctions.

Some in the Iranian diaspora believe these sanctions will be enough to intensify the opposition movement and incite citizens to overthrow their government. This theory assumes that witnessing Iranians beaten and killed in the streets of Tehran and ongoing incidents of rape and torture by the authorities is not enough to adequately enrage the Iranian public. Rather, further impoverishing Iranians and limiting their access to technologies that facilitate communication will somehow provoke them. Time will tell if this theory holds true or if it's just the wishful thinking of a diaspora losing touch with the reality of its homeland.

In Iraq, Saddam tightened his grip on power as the middle class disintegrated. In North Korea, a third generation in the dynasty of despots is poised to take the helm despite any resistance. And in Cuba, with a half century of sanctions, Raul may have taken over for Fidel, but it's the same old Castro. So if regime change is the intended goal of sanctions, as some people may believe, it simply has yet to work.

The neocon camp, which apparently will not rest until it achieves the coveted hat trick in the Axis-of-Evil wars, seems at least momentarily appeased by these new sanctions. But as author and reporter Stephen Kinzer stated on Hamid Dabashi's "Week in Green" program, once the sanctions don't work (and he believes they won't), "Those who always wanted to go to war will say 'We tried everything, it didn't work...now we have no alternative but to go to war.'"

These neocons, who can count in their number of supporters the international man of un-diplomacy John Bolton, have also made unholy alliances with groups such as on again off again terrorist cult, MEK. No doubt they will soon dismiss "strategic sanctions" and reintroduce "strategic strikes" into the dialogue.

And again Obama will have the opportunity to appear either as a conventionally molded U.S. president, or as that misplaced candidate who captured the attention of the American public with promises of change, thus propelling him to a historic election. Time will tell if his presidency will be as historic.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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20 Comments

Obama has never pretended to support free trade. Anyone who is surprised by a law banning free trade was not paying attention.

muhammad billy bob / July 12, 2010 7:51 PM

"Time will tell if his presidency will be as historic."

In a very short year and a half, time has already told -- his place in history is already carved -- America has never had it 'so bad.' Let's hope the result of his actions are not carved too deeply.

Just an opinion, while we still have the right to one. Thanks for the commentary -- a typically fine Tehran Bureau article.

Observer / July 12, 2010 9:55 PM


President Obama is an articulate and consummate politician. In line with other excellent politicians in the past, he articulated different messages to different crowds in order to get elected. However, for those paying close attention to his inner circle and his appointments early on that he has no intention of "change" vis-a-vis Iran. For example, if you were listening carefully during the campaign, you would have heard this from candidate Obama in DAVENPORT, Iowa (Aug. 25, 2008):

“My job as president would be to try to make sure that we are tightening the screws diplomatically on Iran, that we’ve mobilized the world community to go after Iran’s program in a serious way, to get sanctions in place so that Iran starts making a difficult calculation,” .... “We’ve got to do that before Israel feels like its back is to the wall.” ... " World Must Press Iran before Israel Strikes"

In other words, he was plotting sanctions, weakening Iran, possible strikes, before he was ever elected and while he was talking "change", "diplomacy", "negotiation", etc. etc.

I don't expect any less from the President of the United States. His job is to do his best to protect the interests of the US and expand the domain of influence (in all regards) of the US. For that matter, from the president of any country whatsoever. To think otherwise and in emotionally fuzzy terms is utterly naive.

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of the President point very clearly to where he wants to go. To blame every decision of the President of the United States on some amorphous group with incredible control over US policy appears to me to be a tactic by the White House to "have their cake and eat it to" - just blame the "neocons". It seems to be much more reasonable to think of necons as an extension of US political arm that serves a practical purpose!

Jay / July 12, 2010 11:20 PM


This is a good article. To those who may be interested, I suggest to read the following article

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/muhammad-sahimi/the-audacity-of-hoax-obam_b_621876.html

posted by Professor Sahimi, who is a columnist here at this site.

Asghar Taragheh / July 13, 2010 5:32 AM

dear mr karimi this was a very artuculate and good anaylsis of the effects of sanctions and it assesment.the problem that obama faces now is which goverment should he engage with,is ahmadinejad really a legitimate representitive of the iranian people after the farudulant ellection?
he is in a very fragile state,the engagement policy at the present is on the back burner,and the sanctions are in the forfront,bying him some time.

fay moghtader / July 13, 2010 6:41 AM

Very disappointing ME policy from this President, so far. Apparently unable to stand up to the Israel lobby.

BTW, the author neglected to mention that President Ahmadinejad has written Obama twice. There have been no replies. Sort of shows which President has the most political wiggle room to deal one-on-one with the other.

Contrary to the tome of this article, it may be that the Iranians are the ones with the most potential for political flexibility, not the Americans. The negative reception to the 2010 Tehran Declaration would confirm this.

Pirouz / July 13, 2010 10:52 AM

Pirouz,

The Israel lobby is less influential than the Islamic lobby.

Everyone has the right to petition the U.S. president. What the U.S. president does with these petitions is usually a calculation based on his ability to be re-elected. The Israel lobby is rather small and has nowhere near as much money as the Islamic lobby.

It is probably much more likely that the Saudi money of the Islamic lobby is swaying Obama to the anti-Iranian side.

Truth be told, neither the Israeli lobby, nor the Islamic lobby are very important to a U.S. president. By far, the most important lobby to a U.S. president is the AARP. This is the lobby that represents the majority of those who vote for the president.

muhammad billy bob / July 13, 2010 8:10 PM

Jay:

I agree with much of what you said in regards to every Pres. must protect American interests. In fact, I wrote so in the article. But I don't blame the neocons for every decision Obama makes, I blame Obama. And I don't see the neocons as an "extension of US political arm that serves a political purpose." I feel the neocon policy has been a disservice to the world many times over, including America.

Mr. Taragheh:

Thank you. I certainly think Dr. Sahimi's article is a great read as well, much more thorough and comprehensive.

fay moghtader:

Thank you. Obama is certainly in a tight spot. Ahmadinejad is the President and he will continue to serve three more years. This is a fact. So negotiating with Ahmadinejad will not legitimize or deligitimize his Presidency. And even if there were negotiations I don't think Obama and Ahmadinejad will take the stage together anyway. There will be no hand shaking ceremony I don't think. I think there points that Iranians will negotiate on (drug trafficking, security) regardless if Ahmadinejad or Mousavi was President. And even if Mousavi became President, I don't think this Obama Pres. would negotiate with him either (for various reasons). In the end, sanctions are not a real solution, and everyone knows this, even the neocons. Iran is a dynamic, pluralistic society. Making it's citizens impoverished through collective punishment via sanctions will create resentment and bitterness in the end, much like it did in Iraq.

Pirouz:

You are right Ahmadinejad wrote Obama two letters. But he did receive criticism for writing the letter to Obama congratulating him on his election. Either way, I cannot envision a scenario where Ahmadinejad meets Obama one-on-one.

Arash Karami / July 13, 2010 8:23 PM

fay - The US regime supports and sustains numerous despotic and dictatorial governments throughout the world so I do not think they have any problem with doing a deal with Ahmedinejad's govt. The reasons for not doing a deal are other than this. And please do not believe any nonsense of their concern for the human rights of the Iranian people. They themselves are amongst the worst abuser and supporters of those who regularly abuse human rights and carry out torture. Have they stopped trading with China because of its suppression of Tibetans or due to the massacre at Tianamenn which was worse than anything that has happened in Tehran to date. Or put sanctions against Russia for aiding and abetting the Serbs in Bosnia or the suppression of human rights of its restive minorities.

rezvan / July 13, 2010 9:31 PM

MBB:
What "Islamic lobby" are you referring to? You're saying the Israel lobby isn't in control of US ME policy? You're either naive or ignorant, one of the two. I suggest you inform yourself of this political reality.

Arash:
It would be a sensational PR victory for President Ahmadinejad to be accorded the respect inherent with such recognition by an American president. Of course, President Ahmadinejad would seize the moment. But due to domestic political restraints, President Obama appears unable to even contemplate such a bold move. It's too bad, too. He implied he was open to such, while a candidate.

Pirouz / July 14, 2010 8:37 PM

Pirouz,

The Islamic lobby I am referring to is the lobby of oil producing nations of the Arabian pennisula. This lobby is much more influencial than the Israli lobby.

The combined money and natural resources this lobby has and currently contributes to U.S. politicans are far, far greater than the Israeli lobby.

You are living in some kind of dream world if you believe that the small insignificant Israeli lobby is powerful at all, let alone as powerful as the Islamic lobby.

muhammad billy bob / July 15, 2010 6:18 PM

If the Islamic lobby (and what is the name of this organization?) was even close to being as powerful as AIPAC then Israel would not exist. Instead it is Palestine that no longer exists.

Billy Bob, I know this is a good laugh for you, getting people riled up with your nonsense must be rewarding, but you are spreading lies.

Anonymous / July 15, 2010 9:02 PM

Anonymous,

I'm not about getting "people riled up". What I am about is dispelling the idiotic misconcepetions conspiracy nuts have been spreading for the last couple of hundred years.

The Jews do not "control the media", they did not "start WWI", they do not "control the world banking system". Jews are a very small group of people with very little influence. The decision of the U.S. government to recognize Israel as a nation 62 years ago involved many factors. The very least was that Israel and jews were influential.

The "Islamic lobby" is comprised of several international companies primarily backed by the royal families of the Arabian pennisula. Aramco, and KGOC are 2 of the most important ones. And 2 of the largest contributors to Bush I and II's campaigns. These people are not particularly fond of the Palestians, especially after seeing what the Palestinians did to Lebanon, and Jordan.

muhammad billy bob / July 15, 2010 11:51 PM

And you call everyone us a conspiracy theorist. Because they did not like what Palestinians did to Lebanon and Jordan the Arabian peninsula Arabs are going to side with European Jews over Arab Muslims to rule over one of Islam's holiest sites. That is a big leap.

Whatever moron told you that Jews control the media or started WWII shouldn't be an excuse for you to spread lies. AIPAC is the one of the wealthiest and well run PACs in America, and it is not a conspiracy theory, they operate completely as a legal entity. There is no need for conspiracy theories when you have facts.

Ask yourself, if Jews have so little influence and are so few in number then why is it that nearly 1/3 of U.S. Senators are Jewish? Again, because they are influential, well organized, and well funded.

Go ahead and answer with whatever nonsense you can think of I have already gone against my own advice by getting into it with you.

Anonymous / July 16, 2010 3:54 AM

Anonymous,

I'm not trying to "get into" anything with you.

Honestly you should take a good long look at your assumtions.

As I stated before, the AARP is the largest, most influential, and most well funded lobby in the U.S. Regardless of that, because a lobby is well funded does not mean that the U.S. government will accept it's ideals. Lobbists are only exercising their free speech. It is up to the politicans to decide if their argument should be made into law. U.S. politicans do not vote to take money from the young and redistubite it to those over 50 because of the AARP. They do such things because there are many, many more voters over 50 than than are those under 50. Self interest and preservation are the primary concerns for all.

The only judgement I make as to who should "rule over Islam's holiest sites".Is that those that rule such sites should respect the individuals' rights and liberty. Are you referrring to Jersuleam? Israel is not perfect in any way, far from it, but they respect the individuals rights and liberty, much, much more than than any of the Palestian governments. The saudi government is no better over there sites.

muhammad billy bob / July 16, 2010 4:52 PM

FYI,

There are 14 out of 100 Jews in the U.S. senate. Not 1/3rd. These Jews include people like Al Franken, who are certainly not friendly to the state of Israel.

There are 30 Jews out of 435 in the U.S. house. The Jewish population worldwide is roughly 2.5%. In the U.S. it is roughly 1.7%.

Israel has a population of around 7.4 million. About 1/10th that of Iran alone. Which has roughly 73 million. About 19% of Israel's citizens are of Islamic faith.

muhammad billy bob / July 18, 2010 9:35 PM

hah, so you are saying that 1.7% of US populations are Jews, but according to your own post, 14% of the Senate are Jews?

And Muslims who are 0.6% of US have how many senators? 0

Wow, a really powerful lobby those Islamists in US!

M. Ali / July 19, 2010 10:22 AM

Thank you for providing clarity MBB, but is the worldwide Jewish population really 2.5% - that would be about 150 million given a population of 6 billion.

See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_population

Agha Irani / July 19, 2010 12:02 PM

Ok, I've checked my math. I'm wrong on the 2.5% worldwide. It is .25% worldwide. Based on 5.5 billion worldwide population.

Statistics like this are tricky. I'm being generous with 5.5 billion, it could easily be 6 billion or 6.5 billion. And what is considered a jew? I used to work with a guy who claimed he was a jew, just because his wife was jewish. He did not practice the religion at all and had no other connection to jewish people. I would not consider him a jew, but who knows if he would be considered in such statistics.

muhammad billy bob / July 19, 2010 5:50 PM

What are the purposes of lobbies in the U.S.? They exist to try to influence lawmakers to vote like the people they represent would wish. AIPAC supports many non jews, and oppsosses many jews. It is not their goal to get jewish people elected. It is their goal to get as many lawmakers as possible to vote their way in matters they care about. Particularily those votes that concern the state of Israel. There are not a whole lot of votes in the U.S. legislature that have any effect on Israel or muslim nations for that matter. The Islamic lobbies do not try to elect muslims. They try to get non muslim politicans to vote for their interest.

Why are there more Jews in the U.S. senate than there are jews in the U.S. poulation in general. One reason is the peculiarity of the U.S. Senate. The U.S. senate was specifically designed to not represent the exact population. Each state has 2 senators, regarless of their population. The state of New Jersey has the same 2 senators as Texas or California. The Jewish poulation of New Jersey is a much higher percentage than that of Texas or California, yet they all have the same number of senators.

There are many other peculiarities of the U.S. senate. Latinos are under-represented. Women are under-represented.There are many reasons for these anonmalies. Many much more complex than can be explained to conspiracy theorists that want an easy answer. Humans are complex. Populations in the U.S. are changing dramatically.

Muhammad billy bob / July 19, 2010 6:21 PM