Obama’s Year of Iran

PRINCETON – As US President Barack Obama begins his second term, he will have to devote much of his attention to figuring out how to get America’s domestic finances in order. But foreign-policy issues loom large as well, and, notwithstanding the ongoing conflict in Syria and the possible spread of war across Africa’s Sahel region, the consensus in Washington is that 2013 will be the “year of decision” on Iran.

Obama began his first administration with an offer to engage with the Islamic Republic; as he memorably put it in his first inaugural address in 2009, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” He repeated that commitment, although much more obliquely, in his second inaugural address: “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

As the American scholar and activist Hussein Ibish recently argued, Obama has appointed a cabinet designed to give him maximum room to negotiate a deal with Iran. In particular, naming military veterans as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense will provide him with valuable domestic political cover for an agreement that would inevitably require lifting sanctions on Iran and almost certainly recognizing its right to enrich uranium at a low level of concentration. That should signal to Iran’s rulers not only that the US is serious about a deal, but also that whatever the US offers is likely to be the best deal that they can get.

The Obama administration has assembled an extraordinary coalition of countries to impose economic sanctions that are having a demonstrable effect on the price and availability of goods in Iran and on the ability of even powerful institutions, such as the Revolutionary Guard, to do business.