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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President Obama is obviously quite intelligent. He also seems like a genuinely good guy. BUT it is quite obvious since the beginning that he is not very experienced, and has not been thinking about international affairs or economic matters. He is going to rely heavily on his advisers – but unfortunately his advisers are all establishment types, all from the system. He should have included people like Peter Schiff, Ron Paul, George Soros, etc. in his economic team.
And yes, Hilary Clinton is no Kissinger. Infact, the Obama team is quite boring. Don’t expect any big breakthrough or anything out-of-the-box, or anything bold and drastic – contrary to his words that bold action is needed now.. Obama will be slow and cautious (mainly because he is inexperienced), and there won’t be any big changes.

Posted by ron_paulite | Report as abusive

I feel Obama would understand that now the need of the hour is no war. The United States has bled enough with the years long war with Iraq. the aftermath has been seen on the economic downturn. I believe he would definitely take the consultative approach rather than aggressive approach towards Iran.

This refers to teh comment of Ron_paulite. Is it not contradictory that you say President Obhama is new and experienced and hence will not change much and also that his experienced advisors come with too much expereince and hence baggage and would not change. Then how and when do u bring a change. My belief is that Obhama is shrude and he will ensure that the old hands deliver the change which he will demand.

Posted by Shashi | Report as abusive

Great article. Like most other Iranians, I am hoping for a shift in the US policy that may pave the way for improvement of civil liberties and economic welfare of the people in Iran. The current regime and its oppressive policies have only been sustained due to the isolation created by policies of previous US administrations. There is also the ever increasing negative voice of the Zionist who’s interest is to continue to rage war and continue to receive monetary aid. They portray Iranians as fanatical theorists wanting to kill every peace loving human being while they themselves kill innocent women and children with phosphorus bombs. Disregarding the government run flag burning rallies, Iranians have no ill feelings towards the people in the US, Europe or Israel for that matter. We just want to be treated fairly; not have our democratically elected governments toppled, our riches stolen, our passenger planes shot out of the sky, wars imposed upon us, etc. Nuclear Iran is not and will not be a threat to Israel as the propaganda machine wants the general population to believe. The actions of the Israeli government is the biggest threat to Israel. All normal people dislike genocide and war crimes! 30 years of failure have proven that sanctions and isolation bear no results. Now they want to attack the country and start a war!

Posted by Olaag | Report as abusive

Look at Iran’s history. Iran never invaded another country. Iran has deep desire to protect the disadvantaged people. Iran Never exploited another nation (contrary to Britain, US–which are the archetypical exploiters—and some European countries). Iran Stands for Justice. It is not phony like western governments; it says the facts the way they are. Iran is not a liar, contrary to western and US government. Iran is no longer a lackey (like it was during the Shah’s regime) of the western or US government–contrary to lackey nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Iran is not against Jewish people; Iran is against Zionism of any kind. Stop thinking of exploiting, and sabotaging Iran, then you will have a symbiotic relationship with Iran. The formula is simple if western/US governments say goodbye to their greed and exploitative behavior. All humans on the face of earth except thieves and exploiters want Peace. All humans on the face of earth know the face of exploiters. So it is time for western/US people to question: is our government an exploiter government or an honest and peace loving government?

Posted by Parviz Simorghi | Report as abusive

Dan from Toronto: While Israeli politicians and their friends in AIPAC consistently portray as irrational the Iranian government(which is complex and opaque and NOT run by Ahmedinejad), intelligence and military leaders do not share that view. Here’s a quote from Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad boss: “I don’t think they are irrational. I think they are very rational. To label them irrational is escaping from reality.”

Posted by Yitzhak S. | Report as abusive

Best Comment? Really? Who picks this crap? That’s a fair question, I think. I’m not saying you have to pick my comment, but the one you picked just wasn’t very insightful. It didn’t really add anything. Bernd wrote a good article, but then the debate really peters out. You guys at Reuters need to get better at this “Great Debate” thing or else just call it “Thought Provoking Articles.”

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

Trita Parsi’s book clearly states that Israel sees a rapprochement between Iran and the US as contrary to its interests, so AIPAC won’t let Obama approach Iran.

Iran needs nuclear power in order to continue exporting oil rather than use it at home. That’s why Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with the support and encouragement of the United States.

Iran’s nuclear program is also under full IAEA safeguards, with absolutely no evidence of any “weapons” program. Iran’s enrichment technology is civilian in nature and is the same as that developed in several other countries, including Brazil and Argentina.

Posted by Hass | Report as abusive

Thanks for the article. world view will change in the future under President Obama or later. The media covers a bit of history or an event in a certain area and generalises it as a happening in the whole country and unfortunately ordinary people who read articles believe them.

i was and am a British national and did live in Iran for about 13 years during the 1981 to 89 war with Iraq as well and after. I had two children, worked and lived a very normal life in Tehran and have a similar life in the UK for the last 12 years, the only difference about there and here is that THE PEOPLE OF ALL CULTURES, RELIGIONS AND TRADITIONS IN IRAN ARE VERY PROUD OF THEIR HERITAGE AS IRANIANS, THEY ARE WARMHEARTED AND HELPFUL AND VERY FAMILY AND COMMUNITY ORIENTATED and will fight for their rights. Most people who complain about or when they are in Iran think that the freedoms offered by the Western countries (various views)is all anyone requires but after they have lived with that superficial freedom for a few months they miss their homeland,their people and a lot more which the western countries cannot offer. I enjoyed my life there and am enjoying it here as well. LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT WHEREVER YOU ARE.

Posted by monica | Report as abusive

It would be most helpful to explain in depth to the public the historic roots of the Middle Eastern conflict going back some 60 to 70 years. By taking little to no interest or even denying the rights of people to their rightful property, land, homeland and civic rights western governments will unfortunately go on fuelling the bloody struggle. Also, maybe for ideological or other reasons , it is extremely rare to see in our media any such discussions and studies on this historic background taking place. As the saying goes: People without knowledge of the past are bound to repeat again and again their mistakes . By the way the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has started with his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” a forceful discussion on this issue.

Posted by p.v. liechtenstein | Report as abusive

Why do we waste so much time on couples-therapy between Palestine and Israel? Getting the relationship right with Iran is exponentially more important. If we want stability in the region then we should hunker down with Iran. The special relationship with Israel can remain in place.

Posted by Alexander | Report as abusive

As long as “US puppy dog Israel” threaten Irans, Palestinians and Arab Nations; Unites States cannot achieve his goal to prevent Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and that for sure. No doubt about it. Arabs are not afraid of Iran. I think we should stop this crapy story forever. It is the west and Israel who created such kind of fears just to push their own agendas. In my opinion if US has the right to have the nukes, the every single country on the face of the earth does have the same right. The question is when US and the West will stop to see the facts with double standard policies. Look at the recent conflict of Hamas and Israel. Do you think Israel dare to attack Hamas with accessive force and kill thousand of innocent men, women and children if Hamas possessed 30% of the weaponary system what Israel possess now. The answer is no. Hamas defeated powerful Israeli army with his third class rockets and forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally. Since my undestanding of Nukes, I have seen only the US who used it. Its the time that US respect evry single Nation on the face of earth and should adopt a policy of “Live and let live, and respect and have respect.”
By the way please do not expect too much from Obama. Just give him a little time. He is new in the market, inexperienced and surrounded by same old faces who are jack of all trades and master of none.

If asked to name the single worst mistake of Nixon, I would point not at Watergate, but at his “historic” visit to the Communist China. With China remaining a scaled up copy of N.Korea, and Taiwan sitting in SC of UN, America would be way better off today.
Firstly, there wouldn’t be such a hollowing of American manufacturing. Just look at the shelves of WalMart or Target – an overwhelming majority of goods is marked “Made in China”. If China remained a closed society, at least half of that would be sourced locally. Admittedly another half still would be made in cheap locales like Mexico or India, but it’s the scale of cheap land and dirt-cheap labor in China that made such a shift of manufacturing capacities from West to 3rd world possible. And if we remove Chinese demand from global commodity markets, especially oil, the commodities would be priced much cheaper, what would be good for USA – the net importer. Please don’t even try to point at American exports to China – they’re minuscule on the grand scale of things, just look at the overall trade balance.
Secondly, it was as great a geopolitical miscalculation as it possibly could be. Instead of getting a junior partner in the global game against USSR, we’ve got another major opponent pursuing its own interests on a global scale and clearly intending to take the place of the chief antagonist of America left vacant by USSR destruction. OK, Russia may disagree with that, but that would result in a very unstable multi-polar world. The old bipolar world order was much more predictable and easier to maintain.
And if asked about the worst mistake of Reagan, I’d point at American involvement in Afghanistan. It was planned as another way to stick it up to the Soviets. What we’ve got as a result is Taleban and al-Qaeda. Yes, Bin Laden is the creation of CIA that turned against its creators.
If Obama decides to negotiate with Iran, it would be a mistake on the same scale. We are much better off with Iran isolated politically and sanctioned economically, with crumbling economy and falling oil output and revenues, under a constant threat of a strike by either USA or Israel. We don’t need Iran a recognized legitimate member of the nuclear club, an economic powerhouse thanks to renewed Western investments in its oil fields, another center of geopolitics, and claiming a permanent seat in SC UN. Instead we should keep the pressure, both politically and economically, with a military option still on the table. Because of the economic difficulties the regime of Ayatollahs is less stable today than if has ever been. When it finally crumbles, we must be ready to offer the people of Iran an alternative, be it a republic led by today’s Iranian dissidents, or – what the hell – another Shah. In any event we should not offer the current regime a shot in the arm.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

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?”

It’s not a question of bombing anybody, it actually serves a bigger purpose if one has a nuke in his kitty. Look what Pakistan is doing to India. The epicentre of terrorism in Islamabad and they constantly hurt India with their terrorist attacks and there can never be a question of war as both the countries are nuke powers. So as long as the mullahs are in Pakistan, they will bleed India and get away scot free, because they have the nukes.

It’s in the hands of the citizens of the world to pray to the supreme to provide every powerful country with sane leaders who look beyond the confines of their border and consider the whole earth as their home and all the inhabitants (two legged and multi legged) as their kith and kin.

Posted by Trey | Report as abusive

This article is entertaining. Why not allow Iran to have the capacity of make nuclear weapons? Well it’s not the fact that if they ever used them against Israel or the US, becuase they do understand that this type of action is doom for them. A total and utter obliteration of much of the country.

The first commandment for any Nation State is not it’s people, the wellness of it’s people or even the health of the country. No … not that thing you are thinking.

It’s the first order or commandment for a nation state to survive and grow. What is being suggested by the more liberal left is too extreme too consider. Though it may be time for more open communications. All that isolation and national stress during the Bush years may have made the Irannian public / Islamic government more open and receptive to outside norms.

This indeed could be Obama’s chance if he should want to take it. If he does succeed it will not be purely becuase of his gravitas and ability to speak well. I definitely think that will be part of the equation but a large part of it will be because of what has happened previously. All that isolation, majorly reduced trade and restrictions on international loans. Those are what has hurt Iran, as it would hurt any nation, and will eventually bring about change.

Some of the commentary on here is so so so one sided and only seen from the restrictive view of the liberal paradigm that commentary is flat. Open your minds and look at the issue from both sides. I’m not a total Bush supporter but do see some of the positive effects from his administration. Forget about the massive project he started (over a billion dollars now) in AIDS medication for Africa?

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

“It’s not a question of bombing anybody, it actually serves a bigger purpose if one has a nuke in his kitty. Look what Pakistan is doing to India.”
If you think this is irresponsible then look at what Israel is doing to the unarmed civilians. Only way to avoid civilian casualty is to have the civilians have the means to defend themselves.

I think Obama’s Mideast policy will fail simply because of Hillary Clinton. She is nothing but Bush Jr. in a female appearance when it comes to Israel.

Posted by Kamal | Report as abusive

Persians have a bloody history. They were the most barbarian Empire in the Ancient times, They got some civilisation when they embraced Islam and learned and exchanged some science and theories with Arabs. But even with this they made their own Islamic crown and rituals (shiaa)which historically is against most of the Arab Countries (Sunni).
If this country got a nuclear weapon, its leaders will use it but for sure they will not use it against Israel. Not because they like it but because their main enemy is the Muslim Sunni Countries.
Now the point is, if US and the EU allowed Iran to own a nuclear arm their relations with oil Arab countries will be demolished unless they agree to arm Saudi Arabia and Egypt with the same mass destruction weapon.
And In this case, I can see that for the security of Israel and the protection of Western States interest in the MiddleEast, Iran must be attacked as soon as possible by a coalition Forces like the one launched and organised by George herbert walker Bush in the first gulf war.
Because To deal with moderate Arab regimes and to create an Abou Mazen’s Palestinian state is far better than launching a nuclear race in the region (Crowded with many extremist Militias from Qaeda to Hamas to Hizbollah) which will lead sooner or later to a cmplete loss for the West and the destruction of Israel.

Posted by Poppy | Report as abusive

I think, The United States ,especially America’s president( Obama) should consider U.S.A.former policies about Iran and choose the most rational policy. The past shows that U. S.A.didn’t success in the it’s foreign policy with regard to iran and it seems it has wasted america’s energies. For example, The bush government imposed different sanctions against iran and couldn’t reach none of the it’s aims.It seems the situation has changed after the war against Iraq in the 2003 and America has weakened. Now,iran is the most important country in the region( and the gulf of Persian) and plays a powerfull role in the maintenance of international peace and security. The Iran government and it’s people would like have good relations with all of the nations but don’t permit others to intervene in their affairs. In this situation, it’s better the Obama government remove America former sanctions against iran and set up direct and without precondition negotiation.I do hope relations goes well.

Posted by alimahmoudi | Report as abusive

Iran never called for the destruction of U.S. or Israel. Ahmedinejad has just questioned the legitimacy of of israel’s existence in the palestinian soil and their slaughter of the palestinians based on the what the U.S. and israel perceive as Self-defence.

Posted by Kaif | Report as abusive

What seems to escape everyone’s attention is not so much Iran having nuclear ability. Iran signed the NPT which meant that it locked itself into supervised development of anything nuclear. Pakistan and Israel and the likes did not sign this treaty which meant they could do as the like. Iran entered an agreement that it later breeched and the West fears that this may set a precedent to other nations that signed the NPT and yet develop nuclear capability anyway.
The U.S. Middle-East policy is an inaccurate term in my opinion as there are several problems that are often clustered into one package. The Israel Palestinian issue has nothing to do with an Iran policy. The Arab policy is also separate from the Iranian issue as Iran cannot be dealt the same cards as the other nations in the region. It is a NON-ARAB country, the only one in the region, Middle-East, to be over 100 years old. All the Arab states in the region are creations of and after WW1 including Iraq. So the Iran issue is not the same as the Arab or Israeli issue. Iran may be in the region but its politics is as different from its neighbors as Japanese politics is to Falkland Island politics. Although these countries share the region their disputes arise from which countries are backed by the West. In actual fact Iran has no issue with Israel. Iran’s issue is with the West unlike its neighbors. This issue arises from total abuse of Iran and Iran’s unique position as a major source of fuel.
I think it is unwise to compare Iran with any other country in the region. Its like comparing the UK with Spain or Chile. Lets not forget this is a country that shares its language with ancient German, 3000 years old, its first emperor mentioned in the Torah and by Xenephon. There is alot there to set it apart from the regional upstarts that gallantly call themselves nations.