Foreign Policy Blogs

The Evolution of Obama’s Iran Policy

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During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama advocated diplomacy over coercion to resolve the Iranian nuclear threat, pledging to open the lines of communication and work to reinstate trust between Washington and Tehran. Barely having time to file for a change of address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, newly sworn-in President Obama’s Iran policy was challenged by events in the Persian Gulf. Despite initial friendly rhetoric and gestures toward Iran’s government, Obama’s Iran policy shifted during the first months of his presidency.

Iran’s Green Movement erupted as a result of the country’s disputed June 2009 presidential election. Seeking social reforms and regime change, the Iranian grassroots initiative did not receive official support from the U.S. Government. Although a proponent of democratic reforms, President Obama validated his inaction on the grounds that American assistance and/or support could cause more harm than good. With an America-Iran history polluted with unwanted American interference, President Obama feared intervention would delegitimize the Iranian movement.

While President Obama’s non-commitment to Iranians in the summer of 2009 is a source of displeasure among some, the logic behind his decision is valid. Despite continued rhetoric favoring diplomacy and open communication between the two governments, President Obama altered his Iran policy after the peoples’ peaceful initiative was brutally suppressed by the Iranian government.

Unsuccessful attempts to negotiate, combined with Iran’s disregard for human rights, paved the way for the Obama administration’s implementation of new sanctions against Iran. Passed by the United States Congress in June 2010 and signed into law by President Obama in July 2010, the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, in part, expanded preexisting sanctions on Iran’s energy-related activities. September 2010 sanctions blocked assets of Iranian government officials, members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and others accused of human rights abuses by the United States. Finally, Executive Orders in May and November 2011 implemented additional restrictions to further punish Iran’s government and strangle the country’s economy.

Ultimately, extensive unilateral and international sanctions were unsuccessful. Despite ineffective sanctions, the prospect of diplomacy to yield change reemerged in early 2012 when the United States along with other global powers announced renewed negotiations with Iran. With negotiations at a standstill after three rounds of talks, threats associated with Iran’s nuclear program increased with Israel alluding to a potential unilateral preemptive strike against Iran. The effects of an Israeli attack would have worldwide ramifications, especially for the United States, Israel’s greatest ally. President Obama needed to find a way to quell American security concerns and calm the Israelis without completely closing the door on effective diplomacy with Iranian leadership.

Nearing the end of his first term in office, sanctions and diplomatic efforts have been at the forefront of Obama’s Iran policy. Arguably, neither has curtailed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Just shy of four months until Election Day, the Obama administration is again shifting its Iran policy to satisfy the security concerns of all involved parties, while attempting to keep diplomatic efforts on life support.

Obama approving military actions against Iran was unthinkable when the wide-eyed, idealist president entered the Oval Office in 2009. Recently, President Obama has stated that no option is off the table in dealing with Iran, including military action. Obama has been unable to diplomatically triumph, and with recent events, it is uncertain for how long he will be able to balance diplomacy and the threat of force toward Iran.

Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, a primary shipping channel for roughly one-fifth of the crude oil traded worldwide, prompted the United States to mobilize American military. In early July, the United States stationed military in the Persian Gulf to deter Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz. American military in the Persian Gulf combined with increased fighter jets in the region aim to secure the flow of traffic through the Strait of Hormuz while increasing the United States’ deep-strike capability. While asserting its strength and readiness, America’s recent military positioning also aims to temper Israel’s inclination to preemptively strike Iran. Despite increasing its military presence, President Obama has not issued military action against Iran, and it remains unclear under what circumstance he would.

Obama’s Iran policy has undoubtedly evolved from his 2008 idealist campaign platform. Although Obama maintains diplomatic tendencies, favoring negotiations over military action, the past four years have arguably taught him that good policy can fail due to the uncertainty of the human factor. Consequently, his policy alterations, from diplomacy to sanctions and now to military maneuvers, can be chalked up to a still idealistic president navigating the uncertain waters of foreign policy.

  • hass

    Obama never really wavered from the Bush policies on Iran for the simple fact that the policy is dictated not by the president but by special-interest lobbies whose views and agendas are not changed by the election of a new figurehead president.

    Oh, and multiple polls have since shown that the Iranian people did in fact vote for Ahmadinejad, and so the “Green” movement was an attempt by the few to overturn valid election results using force.

    • hass

      Incidentally, there are multiple precedents for a Democat president continuing a Republican foreign policy agenda. Lets remember that it was under Clinton’s watch that the US imposed devastating sanctions on Iraq, which not only led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children but was part of the prelude and build-up to the later invasion in 2003. Ironically, Bush II also promised a lot of nice things while campaigning — in 2000 he promised to have a more “humble foreign policy” than his father but of course he didn’t mean it either.

  • Allison Kushner

    Hass, Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your viewpoint, and while I do not agree with your opinion of the 2009 elections results, I respect it.

    In response to your comment about special-interest groups, it is undeniable that special-interest groups lobby for their organizations’ interests. However, policy is in fact enacted by lawmakers, not special interest groups. While the interests of these various groups remain, for the most part, the same during different presidencies, politicians’ views and support for these groups can and do change.

  • hass

    Lawmakers are responsive to pressure groups, and AIPAC is the mother of all pressure groups especially when it comes to Iran(after all you don’t see Obama going to the annual meeting of, say, the Polish-American Institute and promising never-ending fealty to Poland the same way he & other politicians do regularly for Israel.)

    Anyway, Wikileaks supports the view that Obama was never sincere about any engagement with Iran:

    One can disagree about a lot of things, but the facts are there’s no evidence of election fraud in the 2009 elections, nor would there be a need for any fraud since the losing candidate himself was a hardline regime-insider who actually criticized Ahmadinejad for being “soft” on the nuclear issue when AN proposed ceasing 20% enrichment. Mousavi was vetted and pre-cleared to run for office by the same regime which supposedly felt so threatened by his election that it resorted to massive election fraud? No, makes no sense.

  • hass

    “According to the record, the Obama administration was briefing allies almost from the start — and before Iran had even had a chance to respond to offers of engagement — that we expected this initiative to fail and that we were actively preparing the pressure track that would immediately follow.

    Iran could hardly have been unaware of all this, so the chance that they would respond favorably — even before the contested election in June 2009 and the brutal crackdown that followed — was essentially zero. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy. It has yet to be tried.”

  • hass

    “The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy. It has yet to be tried.”


Allison Kushner
Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.