First 100 Days: Obama, Iran and Richard Nixon

By Bernd Debusmann
January 22, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -

Here is a piece of advice for Barack Obama for dealing with Iran, one of the countries that will loom large in his presidency. Forget the way five of your predecessors dealt with the place. Take your cue from Richard Nixon and his 1972 breakthrough with China.

Just as Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, realized that a quarter of a century of isolating and weakening China had not served America’s interests, so Obama should acknowledge that 30 years of U.S. policy since the 1979 Iranian revolution has failed and that what is needed is a grand bargain, a shift as fundamental as the one Nixon achieved with China.

Those suggestions come from Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, a husband-and-wife team of independent experts who worked on Middle East policy on the National Security Council during George W. Bush’s first term in the White House.

A grand bargain would involve putting all the differences between the two countries on the table at the same time and resolve them as a package.

The list of differences is long. At the top of it is Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. suspects is geared to make nuclear weapons. (Iran denies this). Then there is Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two groups classified as “terrorist” by the United States. Under the Bush administration, Washington threatened military strikes, talked of regime change and imposed economic sanctions.

How likely is it that Obama will make a dramatic Nixon-in-China overture? Not very. For one, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is no Kissinger. And while Obama ran on a platform of change in the presidential election campaign, the man tipped to take charge of dealings with Iran, Dennis Ross, is an old-established Clinton-era Middle East negotiator with a widespread reputation in the area as a man with a pronounced pro-Israeli bias.

Fears about the Iranian nuclear program are rooted not so much in the belief  that Iran, once it had the bomb, would use it against Israel — a suicidal move, given Israel’s nuclear arsenal and second-strike capability — but that it will kick off a nuclear arms race. Or that Iranian nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah.

In the view of Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar and author of “Treacherous Alliance, the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.”, this prospect is remote. “Israel has signaled that it would retaliate against any nuclear attack by hitting Iran — regardless of who attacked Israel – … if any of Iran’s proxies attacked Israel with a nuclear warhead, Israel would destroy Iran.”

Parsi believes, as do other Iran watchers, that Iran does not actually need — and says it doesn’t want — to build a nuclear bomb. Having the know-how to make a nuclear warhead is enough to act as a deterrent, shift the balance of power and whet the nuclear appetites of Arab states fearful of Iranian encroachment.


Their interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities was highlighted by a nuclear cooperation agreement signed on the last working day of the Bush administration by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed al Nahayan. The deal, similar to a U.S. agreement with India, has to be approved by Congress. If it is, can Saudi Arabia be far behind. Or Egypt?

And the question often asked about the Iranian program — why does a country rich in oil and gas need nuclear energy? — can be asked of these countries, too. Unlike Iran, the UAE will not enrich its own uranium and have its program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Still, mastering civilian nuclear know-how can be a first step to getting a bomb.

Being against nuclear non-proliferation is like being against motherhood but there are those who view the long-running debate over Iran’s nuclear program with a dash of skepticism. Take Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior researcher at Yale University who has written extensively about nuclear proliferation.

“Why should we consider it to be catastrophic if tomorrow Iran has nuclear weapons?” he said in an interview. “Today, there are nine countries known to possess nuclear weapons — the U.S., Britain, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea. What would change if Iran became the tenth? Whom would they bomb?”

Why would the fear of mutual destruction that kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from going to war against each other not work equally well in the Middle East?

On Obama’s first working day, the White House reissued his campaign pledge of “tough and direct diplomacy without preconditions” — a break from the Bush administration’s insistence that there could be no talks unless Iran first suspended its uranium enrichment program.

But according to a brief policy outline on the White House website, Washington will push the same carrot-and-stick package Iran has rejected for the past four years. Old wine in new bottles?

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First, America is not after Oil. When people use that term it lumps all of us in the same basket. The big oil companies, which by the way are international in nature, are after the oil and they have leverage with many countries governing bodies. I for one wish our government had some balls and would get off the OPEC oil nipple and eventually get off almost all oil. Besides if you really wanted to damage the governments of the Middle East just crash the oil prices. If the US started pumping this could be today given the current economic condition. And contrary to Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush yes the US could Drill their way out of this issue. Our production has declined for the last 8 years. We have not been trying to get off “foreign” oil. In Fact we have been increasing our need for it. The big oil companies have been slowing down the well production. The big oil companies like Exxon and BP are making sure we need oil.

I am sure Iran wants a Nuke. As I have said before: Have you seen how the world treats a country with a deliverable Nuke? Without a Nuke, Israel would not have lasted the war with Egypt. Personally I think any government based on Religion, any religion, is the absolute worst form of government. It is the most unstable and the most likely to abuse its power. How any people could desire such a government is beyond me. A Nuke in the hands of religious fanatics is a very dangerous thing? But, it is also a Catch 22. Every country has a right to defend itself. Let’s face it. Since a year before Bush Jr. got into office it was known that Exxon, BP and Chevron wanted access to the oil fields in Syria, Iran and Iraq. If you wanted to keep your oil, you needed some way to deter those who would just plain take it from you. So, are we the bad guys, Invading countries on made up charges, setting up puppet governments, giving access to their natural resources to our benefactors? Are we to starve out a people with sanctions until we provoke them into war? How do we go to Iran and Syria and now offer the olive branch?

It is absurd to suggest that any people are more or less barbaric than another. As a People we are all barbaric. All you need to do it just look around. Most of it committed for greed and with ignorance. We were persuaded to walk into the debacle we call Iraq based on an administration’s fear mongering. Now they are gone and We the People have to deal with how we are going to clean up that mess in the middle of a global economic melt down.

The real question is will this administration be able to bridge the diplomacy while strengthening our own economic situation?

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

…Without a Nuke, Israel would not have lasted the war with Egypt…

- Posted by B.Free


Dear B.Free,

Do you recall Israel using nukes on Egypt in 1967? Or in 1973? IIRC, both time the only obstacle between Israeli tank columns and Cairo was UN, Egyptian forces pulverized or encircled or running for dear life.

But otherwise you are right. If we in the West didn’t pay for Arab oil as much as we do, the Arabs would become irrelevant for world politics and history, as they were irrelevant for centuries before the oil was discovered in Arabian penninsula. We need to get off the Arab oil syringe.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Again what arrogance.

Have you been to China? I bet no.

If Nixon hadn’t invited China to join the world financial system, do you think that if China (after Mao) wanted to join, the US could refuse it?
- Posted by ron_paulite

Again what ignorance.

Yes, your bet is right. I’ve never been to China. But according to your logic all astronomers must be dismissed because they’ve never left Earth.
Have you heard about “One China policy”? PRC would never have diplomatic relations with anyone having those with ROC, and vice versa.
Without Nixon’s blunder there’d be no way for PRC to get into UN, let alone SC. As a veto wielding power, America was more then capable to thwart any moves in that direction. And without UN membership, guess how many Western states would’ve switched their embassies from Taipei to Beijing? It would be PRC who refused to open up to any country not explicitly recognizing them as the only China. Considering that USSR and, by association, other Warsaw Pact/Comecon members were not exactly warm to PRC since soon after Stalin’s death, the only European country Beijing would have had warm relations with would’ve been Albania. Add to that some 3rd world regimes, most of them quite odious, and there’d be not much of a world China would’ve opened up to.
And for “the US could refuse it?” you don’t have to look farther away than Cuba (too bad – I wish it became again American resort next door).
But too bad the history doesn’t recognize “what if”. Nixon did what he did, and it resulted in whatever happened next. Now it’s up to Obama to try and fix what’s broken with American industry, including, but not limited to, making it competitive against “China price”. And again, it’s up to Obama to deal with many cases where Chinese global interests are not exactly aligned with ours, to put it lightly.
I guess this sums it up.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Terrorism is a tricky issue. The key is legality.

Covert operations are not terrorism, if they comply with the laws of war.

Likewise, the death of civilians is not in itself a war crime. Israel’s actions will not constitute a war crime in the ICC, as the deaths occurred through “tactical necessity”. Though the deaths were horrifying, they were legal.

Terrorism occurs when an entity seeks a deliberate strike against civilians with no (legal) tactical value. A roadside bomb used to ambush a military convoy is not terrorism. A suicide bomb against civilians is terrorism.

Hamas earns a double whammy. Not only is it using indiscriminate rocket fire, but it is doing so from civilian areas. What happened in Gaza is the very reason why such warfare tactics are illegal.

So at the moment Iran is accused of financing Terrorism to the extent that civilians are being deliberately killed, and financing Insurgency to the extent that soldiers are being deliberately killed. Or so the US asserts.

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

I am glad we agree on the important part. The US must get off the OPEC oil nipple. The US needs to “encourage” the auto industry to incorporate known technologies that have a very high potential of transforming the current transportation industry into one that is no longer tied to liquid fuel…true plug and go. How ever the auto industry continues to pick strategies that are know to be oil dependent like the hybrid models.

As for Israel and Egypt, no Israel didn’t need to use their battle field nuke, just threaten to use it and the Egyptian fled in chaos with the Israeli military beating them up pretty bad as they went. I thought that was pretty much common knowledge. It was the event that established they had a Nuke. I could be wrong…maybe you should check it out.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

dearest Bernd has the best re-commendation for dearest Barack that i’ve seen for middle-east situation so far and in the same fashion one possibility for Palestine-Israel is to improve up^on China’s “One country, two systems”

im from turkey and we are so close to middle east.. and i know this is a game and same scenario as iraq.. it is all about politics.. i m not afraid of nuclear energy or weapons. there was a war in gazze.. and more than 1500 peoole died. and israel didnt use nuclear something. what is difference. can you tell me?

Posted by Faruk | Report as abusive

Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear power. To question its desire for nuclear power when it has gas and oil is asking them to burn their GDP into thin air. If they can use nuclear, solar and wind power to be able to increase oil sales and increase their GDP, why do we have a right to say no they can’t. When their oil reserves are gone they will return to a third world country if they do not manage their resources wisely. Today in America we are complaining because of higher corn prices because of conversion to ethanol fuels. We are trading our ability to sell corn overseas in exchange for producing domestic fuel resources. Does Iran have the right or any other country have the right to tell us we can not convert our corn to ethanol because it does not suit THEIR needs. Yet this is exactly what we are asking Iran to do. Let them have nuclear power and monitor it, negotiate over Hamas and Hezbollah, open the doors to travel and trade and let the beauty of the power of America change Iran. Iranian people already are far west leaning and if we would quit giving them excuses to hate us, we might see a different type of revolution in Iran.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the threats against Iran have nothing to do with terrorism, Israel or weapons of mass destruction. They are all part of a neocon plan to surround Russia and gain a first-strike advantage. Once the foreign policy of the US is rewritten, the empire of 800 foreign military bases will disappear and we will again be a prosperous nation. We must remember Washington and Eisenhower: No foreign entanglements and beware the military-industrial complex.

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

How many Muslim and Christian countries exist? How many Jewish countries? How many countries do not even allow Jews? How many do not allow Muslim or Christians?

Come on now, all religions have a right to survive. The reason Jews need a country is obvious. But they do not disallow any religion.

Posted by reza santorini | Report as abusive

Spooky got the best comment by saying:
The world has said no to nuclear proliferation.
and the list is:
the U.S., Britain, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea.
Does anyone bother to mention that Israel got its nuclear
arsenal after the world said no to nuclear proliferation?

Mr. Debusmann asks why does a country rich in oil and gas need nuclear energy? Texas was once rich in oil. It
has 4 commercial nuclear reactors, and plans are in the works to build 4 more. There is even a nuclear reactor
in Mississippi. All these Middle Eastern countries will one day be as short on oil and gas as Texas is. Nuclear power was the best answer for Texas. It will be the best answer for them.

As long as warmonger Israel dictates America’s Middle East policy we will have to treat Iran as an enemy. It
is too bad. Iranians are good people.

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

Iran will have the bomb, get used to it. It is a matter of national pride. Iran is not going to make a deal, period. Iran has the technical expertise, the manufacturing capability, and the national will, Iran would leave the UN first before giving up the bomb, after all Israel has the bomb. That is that and there is nothing anybody is going to do about it, including Israel.