Obama and a Player Called “Iran”: Forecasting the US Foreign Policy up to 2016

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dr. Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour
University Professor and Analyst of International Issues

Barack Obama’s recent victory in the United States presidential polls has raised many questions about the future direction and orientation of Washington’s domestic and foreign policies. The issue of Iran is among the most important concerns of the United States foreign policy and it was frequently raised during recent presidential election debates. In fact, the name of Iran was mentioned more than 45 times during the third televised debate between the incumbent President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Therefore, the main question is in which direction will Obama’s foreign policy approach to Iran move during his second term in office? To answer that question, one must first delineate certainties as well as uncertainties in Obama’s foreign policy with regard to Iran. In addition, it should be born in mind that by explaining certainties and uncertainties of the US foreign policy, one may come up with a relative forecast on the future path of Obama. The following is a short account of such possibilities.


It is almost certain that during his second term in office as president, Obama will make no fundamental change to the United States strategic mentality and thinking about Iran. This means that Iran will be still considered a threat to the United States by security and foreign policy elite of that country and the conspiracy theory surrounding Iran in the US will continue to exist. The United States view of Iran will be continuation of the current view, which delineates Iran as a major threat to the United States’ regional and international interests. Therefore, it can be deduced that the general framework of the existing consensual policy, which is the dominant view among the United States’ foreign policy elite in both Republican and Democrat camps as well as among politicians with leftist and rightist tendencies, will continue to exist.

The second point which is also clear is that Washington’s sanctions against Iran will continue. Judging from early announcements by the US Department of Treasury about intensification of sanctions against Iran to include new Iranian officials and companies – a decision which was made just two days after the election results were declared – it is quite clear that no major change in the US foreign policy toward Iran is on the horizon. Given the status quo, no such change is also probable in the foreseeable future. As a result, the United States will certainly continue with unilateral sanctions against Iran and will also accompany its Western allies in their unilateral sanctions against Tehran. Of course, intensification of international sanctions against Iran through the United Nations Security Council is almost out of the question. The third certain point is that the Iran issue will be among the most complicated challenges with which the United States foreign policy will be grappling in the forthcoming years. Such a challenge will have a multilayer and complex nature. In addition, due attention should be paid to three decades of tense relations between Iran and the United States following the Islamic Revolution as well as the existing conditions in the region and the world and specific intricacies of the Iran issue. At any rate, it is also certain that the United States’ foreign policy approaches will continue almost unabated in these fields and no tangible change will be seen in them. The United States will continue to face the Iran issue within framework of its political equations. However, certainties should be taken into account in conjunction with uncertainties.


There are many uncertainties about future path of Obama’s foreign policy. The first uncertainty is about operational focus of Obama and division of energy and time among various domestic and international issues. Although the issue of Iran is a tough challenge, Obama will have to deal with even tougher challenges inside the United States which will cause foreign policy issues to rank a few steps lower on the list of his top priorities. The message of recent presidential election has been, and will continue to be, very important for Obama and other Democrat politicians. The focus on economic issues, and resolution of deep-rooted social problems, especially in view of the relatively homogeneous composition of the Congress compared to the first term of Obama, has faced analysts with some degree of ambiguity about what issue will receive the highest amount of attention from Obama.

The second uncertainty is about changes in people who are currently occupying key posts in the US government. According to the reliable news and reports, the current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is sure to leave her post as she is bent on getting prepared to run for president in 2016 election. David Petraeus, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a key member of Obama’s foreign policy team is currently out of the picture following his sex scandal due to an extramarital affair. Who will replace these people? There have been unofficial rumors about the possibility of Susan Rice – the current US Ambassador to the United Nations – being appointed the new Secretary of State to take Mrs. Clinton’s place. Others have speculated that Senator John Kerry will occupy that post. None of these rumors have been confirmed for sure yet. Some reports even talk about possible reinstatement of Colin Powell, who had already served as secretary of state under the former US president, George W. Bush. Let’s not forget that despite his party affiliations with the Republicans, Powell supported Obama during the recent presidential polls. At any rate, the new occupants of the key posts are still undetermined. One of the most important of such posts is that of Secretary of Treasury. The US Department of Treasury has been one of the main players with regard to imposing unilateral sanctions against Iran and, perhaps, it can be considered as the most important player in this regard. Unconfirmed reports say that the incumbent Secretary of Treasury Timothy Franz Geithner will have to leave his post.

Anyway, as long as the fate of such key posts has not been determined, nobody can provide a precise projection on the future turn of Obama’s Iran policy. These uncertainties will be resolved by appointing new people in those posts. Of course, a time interval should be considered for new people to get established in their positions. At the same time, due emphasis should be put on the reality that the main team of experts, which provides Obama with advisory opinions at the White House, the National Security Council and other foreign policy bodies of the United States, will not undergo a drastic change. People like Gary Simon and Puneet Talwar will continue to work.

The third uncertainty is a result of the complicated situation in the region and ambiguities which surround the regional conditions, especially developments in Syria. Iran cannot be considered a totally separate case from regional cases which are of interest to the United States. The changing conditions in the region have faced the United States foreign policy apparatus with a lot of ambiguities which should be taken into account in a final analysis of Washington’s regional policy. As a result, it should be noted that when Obama swore in for his first term in office, nobody actually imagined that at the beginning of his second term, Washington would have to do without many of its past allies, for example, the former Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Few people, if any, also imagined that Obama administration will get down to interaction with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as a new government and political force in the Middle East. Uncertainties resulting from regional conditions will cast serious doubt on Obama’s policy toward Iran as well. However, which options are currently open to Obama and what possibilities are conceivable about future path of the United States foreign policy?


The first option which is available to the United States is continuation of the current situation with Iran and persistence of unilateral sanctions against Tehran. In fact, this option would mean continuation of the status quo with a minor degree of change and modification. This is the most possible option and foreign policy path to be taken by the new Obama administration.

The second option is to adopt an even sharper policy by the United States toward Iran which would entail further escalation of pressure on and hostility against the Islamic Republic. This option cannot be totally ruled out as well because there are many domestic, regional and international players at work to shape the relations between Iran and the United States. Therefore, the election failure of the Republican candidate which barred Mitt Romney from entering the White House does not mean an end to the influence that the rightwing Israeli interest groups and other parties, which call for harsher treatment of Iran, sway over the government of the United States.

The third option, on the other hand, is to achieve a final agreement and a framework for such an agreement. This option has been frequently cited as a possibility by the United States’ foreign policy researchers and officials alike. This means that the United States and Iran will achieve a final agreement on Iran's nuclear issue within framework of the P5+1 group, or on a bilateral basis. According to that agreement, Iran would be able to maintain uranium enrichment up to 3-5 percent under international supervision in order to guarantee no diversion in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program toward military purposes. As a result and within the same framework, sanctions against Iran will reduce through a gradual process. Some experts on the US foreign policy maintain that Iran's nuclear crisis has reached a certain level of maturity at which the time is ripe for the United States to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear energy program and come to grips with the nuclear realities of the Islamic country.

David Ignatius, the famous columnist of the Washington Post, wrote an article in the famous American daily on November 10, 2012, in which he reflected in depth on the future course of the United States foreign policy, especially with regard to Iran. In that article, he pointed to an interview he had with Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University, in which the latter noted that the United States will finally have to reach an agreement with Iran. To prove this, he had brought examples of the past steps taken in the US foreign policy. He added that Washington has been forced more than once to give up its urgent demands and avoid of pursuing to achieve a maximum degree of its demands. An example, he said, occurred during the Cold War period between the United States and the opposite power bloc. In that case, the two sides reached an understanding to set a clear framework and manage complicated problems through an agreement. At any rate, the possibility the White House going for this option should be also taken into account.

However, the most important issue which should be dissected here in all its aspects and in spite of all certainties, uncertainties, and options, is that relations between Iran and the United States, especially when Iran's nuclear issue is concerned, are not one-way relations. Although many players have left their mark on those relations and have played different roles with regard to Iran's nuclear energy program, the United States is not the main player. The other, and more important, side of those relations is Iran. The Islamic Republic has its own decisions to make, reactions to show, as well as maneuvers to do and orientations to follow. As a regional power and despite all the existing challenges, Iran is one of the most important players which will finally sway a great influence not only on its own foreign political fate, but also on the fate of various regional and global policies. Analysts cannot ignore Iran's important role as a player, underestimate it, or downplay its importance. Iran is currently among the most important political players at this juncture of history.

Key Words: Obama, Iran, Foreign Policy, Certainties, Uncertainties, Options, Sanctions, Israeli Interest Groups, Republican and Democrat Camps, Sajjadpour  

Source: Iranian Diplomacy
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour:

*Study of Obama Administration’s Behavior in Negotiations with Iran:’s_Behavior_in_Negotiations_with_Iran.htm

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*The United States and its Concern about World Leadership:

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