Candidate Barack Obama took a gamble on Iran during his 2008 campaign that was probably crucial for his victory in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton. Five years later, president Obama seems ready to take another decisive gamble on Iran that, if it is successful, could become the major achievement of his foreign policy: to end the decade-old conflict over the Iranian nuclear program.
Obama’s first Iranian gamble took place during and after the democratic debate of July 24 2007, when candidates were asked whether they “would be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
Contrary to the laws of political correctness, Obama answered “yes”. His response was slammed by his main adversary, Hillary Clinton, as “irresponsible and frankly naive”. Most analysts also criticized an answer considered a “gaffe”, pointing at the fiery speeches by the Iranian president at the time, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. How could a US president give credit to such a crazy man by meeting with him?
However, Obama did not backtrack, and in another electoral debate argued that “it’s important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that’s where diplomacy makes de biggest difference”. The will to engage with adversaries, instead of launching pre-emptive wars, became one of the trademarks of his platform on foreign affairs.
At that point, Obama was an unlikely presidential candidate, trailing Clinton in polls by more than 25 points. However, instead of damaging his chances of success, his comment helped him to introduce a contrast with all his adversaries. It allowed to define himself as the “candidate of change”, someone willing to challenge the conventional wisdom at a moment when most Americans were eager for different approaches.
One year after his re-election, Obama has not fulfilled some of his main electoral promises, such as closing Guantanamo. Other ones were watered-down, such as his health care reform, disappointing his most liberal supporters. However, the president may deliver in the Iranian dossier by doing what he proposed: engaging with the enemy. In this field, he is doing what he promised. If he is able to reach a final agreement during the coming months, he will show that elections matter. At least to a certain degree, since it is hard to imagine Mitt Romney taking this path.
From my point of view, Obama has taken the right decision. The alternative implies a war against Iran that may engulf the whole region, already battered by several conflicts. Hopefully, those against negotiation, both inside and outside the US, will fail in their attempts to derail the process.