Has Obama unclenched his fist?

IssueApril 2009

As PN went to press, Iran was digesting US president Barack Obama’s surprise New Year (Nowruz) message to the Iranian people. It appears that both the Obama speech and British prime minister Gordon Brown’s recent initiative are designed to mask an unwillingness to accept a compromise on the Iranian nuclear crisis that is supported by former diplomats and by the government of Iran itself. In his 554-word video speech on 20 March, Obama offered a “new day” (but no specific proposals) to both “the people” and “the leaders” of “the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

This was a clear move away from president Bush’s attempt to divide the people from the leadership, and a rare if not unprecedented reference by a US leader to the full title of the country.

The initial reaction of the Iranian leadership was reported in Britain as one of rejection: “Iran rejects Barack Obama’s hand of friendship” – Telegraph; “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismisses Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran” – Guardian; “Ayatollah Khamenei’s uncompromising rebuff rounds off a week of setbacks for the US President” – Independent.

In fact, while Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, did object to aspects of the president’s speech, he also said: “If you are right that change has come, where is that change? … Make it clear for us what has changed.”

The ayatollah added: “We have no experience of this new president and administration. We will wait and see. If you change your attitude, we will change, too.”

This is virtually the same message given generally by Obama in his inauguration speech, and confirmed specifically a week later: “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

Khamenei referred in his response to the fact that on 12 March Obama had renewed US trade sanctions against Iran on the grounds that Iran continued to pose an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US national security.

The supreme leader also remarked on Obama’s statement that Iran could not take its proper place in the world “through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation”.

Khamenei asked how Obama could hold out the hand of friendship, at the same time as accusing Iran of sponsoring terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons.


The dispute between the west and Iran turns on Iran’s nuclear power programme, and its growing capacity to enrich uranium. The United States and Britain say they want to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and because of Iran’s suspicious behaviour in this area, they demand that Iran halt uranium enrichment.

Iran has shown that it is determined to exercise its legal right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium on its own soil, come what may.


The two conflicting objectives can be resolved, say former US and British diplomats, if enrichment is permitted on Iranian soil – only within facilities owned and managed by an international consortium of companies and governments including the government of Iran.

There have been various proposals, including a high-profile initiative from Thomas Pickering (a highly-respected Reagan-era US diplomat), and a paper co-authored by former British ambassador to the UN Sir John Thomson.

The enrichment facility would have international staff at every level, able to detect suspicious activities. The ejection of international staff would be a signal that Iran was seeking a nuclear bomb – but had not yet acquired one: a dangerous position to be in. Iran would also accept and enable more stringent inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Iranian consent

The startling fact about the consortium proposal is that it is not just a fringe interest of former diplomats. It has been Iranian government policy since September 2005, when president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his speech to the UN General Assembly: “as a further confidence building measure and in order to provide the greatest degree of transparency, the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to engage in serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran”.

In 2007, Javad Zarif, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, made the following official proposal to a Time magazine journalist in March 2007: “Iran could agree that its nuclear facilities, including all of its enrichment plants, could be jointly owned by an international consortium. All countries with concerns, including the US, could participate in that consortium. Their people and other foreign nationals could come and go to work at the facilities, which would allow for the best type of monitoring.”

Iran’s willingness to accept a consortium was reiterated in a 13 May 2008 letter to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon calling for the “establishing [of] enrichment and nuclear fuel production consortiums in different parts of the world – including in Iran”.

Gordon Brown

British prime minister Gordon Brown attempted to make his own diplomatic breakthrough a few days before Obama, on 17 March. Sadly, it made almost no impact on the international scene.