Barack Obama’s presidency was only hours old when a fierce debate erupted among top Iranian officials over the new U.S. leader and his offer to “extend a hand” to the Islamic republic. Hard-liners suspected a trick, convinced that Obama was no different from his predecessor, but others saw potential for a long-sought diplomatic thaw.
“It created real hope inside Iran,” recalled Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official and witness to the internal rift over Obama’s 2009 inaugural speech. “The question was whether he could deliver.”
Both sides misjudged Obama, who has proceeded to chart a course with Iran that is neither fully conciliatory nor bellicose. Over the previous few years, the president has used his office to repeatedly extend offers of rapprochement to Iranian leaders. And when those attempts have been rejected — firmly — he has used diplomacy to build an unprecedented wall of international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and preside over the imposition of the harshest economic sanctions in the country’s history.
At the same time, the Obama White House has proven to be no more successful than its predecessors at halting Iran’s nuclear advance, the singular goal that has driven U.S. policy on Iran since the George H.W. Bush administration. Indeed, Iran’s rate of production of enriched uranium has nearly tripled since Obama took office, while hopes that the president can deliver a solution to the crisis have faded, even among his former admirers in Iran.
“This hand that was stretched out to us turned out to be covered in iron,” said Mousavian, the Iranian diplomat.
As Obama nears the end of his first term, the mixed results of his Iran policy have provided ammunition for supporters — who point to the president’s unparalleled success in uniting the world against a nuclear Iran — but also for his chief political rival, Republican Mitt Romney, who has pounded the White House for failing to halt Iran’s march to a nuclear-weapons capability and accused the president of abandoning Israel, the United States’ top ally in the region.
The Iran record offers unique insights into Obama’s use of power in dealing with an intractable foreign policy challenge that threatens to dominate the agenda of whoever occupies the White House in 2013. On Monday, at the U.N. General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained defiant in the face of calls for his country to curb its nuclear program and suggested that the United States was being bullied by Israel. Obama is expected to address the issue in remarks before the United Nations on Tuesday.
For now, the Obama administration is seeking to further increase the pain for Iran, responding in part to pressure from Israel and from Congress, which has consistently urged harsher measures, including some that U.S. officials fear could hurt allies as well as Iranians. Although sanctions rarely work, independent analysts say a groundswell of economic unrest could force the regime to make concessions if it sees its survival at risk.