President Barack Obama has made outreach to the Islamic Republic of Iran a foreign policy centerpiece of his administration. At his inauguration, he promised that if US adversaries would unclench their fists the United States would extend a hand. Then, in his first major television interview, he told al-Arabiya satellite TV, "It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but [also] where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach."
He has. US diplomats have sought out their Iranian counterparts at international forums and agreed to meet Iranian officials without precondition. On March 20, Obama released a Nowruz greeting in which, without precedent, he declared, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," implicitly recognizing the current government as the legitimate representative of the Iranian people.
Obama believes in born-again diplomacy -- that whether with Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, North Korea or Russia it is possible to forget the past and start anew. Alas, the world does not revolve around Obama nor has the reason for the poor state of US-Iran relations been simply lack of past effort.
Every US president has sought rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. US diplomats remained in Tehran throughout the revolution, first by choice and later, of course, as hostages. It is ironic that President Jimmy Carter's desire to engage sparked the embassy seizure, as Iranian radicals responded to the perceived threat of rapprochement symbolized by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's handshake with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan by storming the compound to disrupt that process. Nevertheless, Carter allowed the Islamic Republic to retain its embassy in Washington for five more months, hoping to keep open a possibility for dialogue.
The Reagan administration also sought relations, even sending former National Security Advisor Robert "Bud" McFarlane to Tehran. Speaking at the University of Tehran on December 9, 2008, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ridiculed the attempt, recalling how, "McFarlane came here and our authorities were not willing to talk to him. Only our second and third rate authorities talked to him." McFarlane returned empty-handed.
Twenty years ago, there was again hope for change. The Iran-Iraq war had ended, Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini was dead and Hashemi Rafsanjani, lauded as a pragmatist in the West, won the presidency. "I don't want to...think that the status quo has to go on forever," President George H.W. Bush told a press conference shortly after his inauguration.
President Bill Clinton, too, reached out to the Islamic Republic, even authorizing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to engage her Iranian counterpart in a one-on-one meeting, an opportunity lost when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, shortly before the rendezvous, ordered Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi not to show.
And despite President George W. Bush branding Tehran as part of the Axis of Evil -- a mild comment compared to near daily Iranian calls for America's demise -- there was greater engagement with Tehran under Bush than under any administration since Carter's. Alas, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, the White House discovered that Iranian diplomats either did not speak for the Revolutionary Guards or did not keep their promises.
So where does this leave Obama? There is an unfortunate dynamic in Washington in which new administrations fault predecessors rather than adversaries for failure to engage productively. No matter what their preconceptions before entering the Oval Office, however, all presidents discover they are powerless to resolve differences with Tehran when Iran's leadership does not desire it. Hence, while the presidents or foreign ministers of countries like Bolivia, Eritrea and Senegal, let alone Hamas leaders, receive audiences with the Supreme Leader, the Iranian leadership refuses to allow US diplomats even to set foot in Tehran. And while journalists and academics applaud Obama's overtures, they too often ignore the Iranian response, for example Khamenei's Apr. 15, 2009 speech at Imam Hossein University where he declared, "The recommendation to return to the global order is the same as capitulating to the bullying powers and accepting the unjust world order."
The Islamic Republic is an ideological entity. It roots sovereignty not in the will of its citizens but upon the notion that the supreme leader acts as a place holder for the Hidden Imam. As a system it has failed. Iran's economy is in tatters and the regime preserves power through the ever more pervasive Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
To deflect responsibility for failure, it pays to have an enemy to rally masses around the flag. Iran's leadership has determined that the United States -- the "Great Satan" -- is it. Meaningful rapprochement would mean the regime's demise. Rather than work to improve relations with the US, therefore, Iranian authorities, either directly or by proxy, impose ever more obstacles. Alas, Ahmadinezhad's recent speech at Geneva and the arrest of Roxanna Saberi are just the beginning.