Iran Nuclear Talks: Obama Should Visit Tehran


Talks in Almaty, Kazakhsta, between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) plus Germany, aimed at addressing Iran’s nuclear program, were on Wednesday extended for a further day.

They are the first talks in eight months on the issue, during which time tensions have continued to simmer, and indeed have been inflamed by threatening rhetoric, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous “red line” speech at the United Nations. While the resumption of the talks in Almaty themselves, and their unscheduled extension, may be seen as a positive sign, expectations of any real progress are low. It is this environment of ongoing tension and lack of progress that has led some to argue that U.S. President Barack Obama should consider taking the bold step of emulating former president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 by visiting Iran himself, or even inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.S.

The U.S. should strongly consider such a move, as it would signal a real willingness on the part of the U.S. to try and resolve the current tensions. It would show that Obama is serious about trying to find a diplomatic solution, unlike the current approach, which is characterised much more by sticks than carrots and is going nowhere.

Nixon’s visit to China is widely regarded as being highly successful, and a key step to normalization of relations between the two countries. Following longstanding demonization of the Chinese leadership, and the absence of negotiations or dealings with mainland China since 1949, through direct talks Nixon and his officials negotiated trade and travel and cultural exchanges. Significantly, Nixon was a Republican visiting a Communist country during the Cold War. Overall, the visit stands an important example of how pragmatism and direct talks can overcome fear and suspicion and help ease tensions between countries.

The current U.S. strategy towards Iran of punitive sanctions is not working. U.S. officials have even admitted as much, and yet they continue to stick with them. But rather than coercing Iran into agreeing to western demands, the sanctions are simply hurting ordinary Iranians and making Iran’s leaders even less willing to compromise. While the reasoning behind the sanctions is that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, as University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole notes, there is no proof of this, and a lot of evidence against it. Furthermore, Cole argues that the current strategy could provoke Iran into doing something stupid.

Emulating Nixon, or even considering doing so, would undoubtedly lead to strong criticism of the Obama administration. There would be significant obstacles; in particular, right-wing conservatives in the U.S. who do not believe in dialogue with "the enemy." Additionally, the Israeli government, with all its talk of "red lines," would be outraged. The active role that the media has played in shaping hostility towards Iran also poses a significant obstacle to acceptance of such a move. Furthermore, some argue that as a Democrat, this would be a much harder sell for Obama than visiting China was for Nixon as a Republican, given the traditional stereotype of Democrats as being 'soft' on foreign policy. Consider, however, that from his drone wars to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Obama has hardly been dovish in his approach to foreign policy since taking office.

During his initial presidential bid in 2007, Obama stated that he would be willing to talk with Iran without preconditions. Now is the time to live up to that statement, to go beyond the current narrow approach and try to change the narrative of U.S.-Iran relations. While the two situations are not the same, there are significant parallels between Nixon’s visit to China and a potential Obama visit to Iran. Both cases involve a demonised foreign country, a staunch U.S. commitment to a regional ally (Taiwan and Israel), and the prospect of a situation that could rapidly deteriorate if things don’t change.

If, as Obama has stated, "all options are on the table" in order to produce a resolution to the tensions with Iran, then he must also consider taking a bold step as Nixon did. Even if an offer of direct talks doesn’t work, it would still be a powerful symbol of America’s commitment to a peaceful resolution.