Republican President George W Bush hands over the reigns of the US administration to Democratic President-elect Barack Obama in January 2009. The electoral victory of Obama has been heralded on his campaign tagline of "time for change." Obama has in his campaign speeches spoken about a number of changes in American foreign policy and key among them would be dealing with a nuclear Iran.
President Bush initiated salvos against Iran by condemning its state sponsorship of terror and branded it in 2002 along with the Saddam Hussein-led Iraq and North Korea, as member of an axis of evil. As part of the Bush doctrine, Iraq was invaded and in the aftermath there were growing signals of Iran being the next target. The Iranian nuclear programme, which is repeatedly censured by the United Nations Security Council was used as a primary whip against the state, and the derogatory rhetoric against Israel by Iranian President Ahmadenijad further boosted arguments for a pre-emptive US strike.
Taking the threat of Iran to a higher level, the Bush Administration accused the state of regional hegemony by supporting sub-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and funding insurgency in Iraq. Despite a National Intelligence Estimate conclusion in December that Iran had stopped its weapons program in 2003, Bush continued to press for action against Iran, with a misleading statement in an interview to Radio Farda, "They've declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people - some in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable to the United States, and it's unacceptable to the world" (The Washington Post, 21 March 2008).
However, despite arguing for stronger measures on Iran, the President has himself opposed Israel from conducting a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities (The Guardian, 25 September 2008). Bush has tried to distance himself from his perceived hawkish image, when during his farewell tour in Europe he pointed out to a coalition of nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program. "I leave behind a multilateral framework to work this issue," Bush said. "You know, one country can't solve all problems. I fully agree with that. A group of countries can send a clear message to the Iranians."
Effectively Bush's statement indicates that rumors of an assault on Iran during the last days of the Bush administration would not be bearing fruit. The mantle of handling Iran has been handed over to Obama, who has made clear that he disfavours military action against Iran. Outlining a position of engaging with Iran's leaders, he offers economic inducements and a possible promise not to seek "regime change," if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues.
Obama compared the Iranian threat to the Soviet threat and argued that the Americans had negotiated with it and therefore, could do the same with Iran (CNN, 19 May 2008). Obama's victory therefore, has been celebrated with much fanfare in Tehran, with President Ahmadenijad even writing a congratulatory letter to him. Iran's Majlis (Parliament) First Vice-Speaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard expressed Iranian sentiments, describing the victory as a failure of Bush's policies (Xinhua, 6 November 2008).
Obama's peacenik stance would find takers in the Pentagon. According to a British intelligence source, opposition to a military strike on Iran was so high that a number of generals were prepared to resign their posts in protest. It is this reason which is attributed to Defense Secretary, Robert Gates' opposition to a military strike (Sunday Times, 25 February 2007). Even Obama's running mate Senator Joseph Biden is perceived to be sympathetic to Iran. According to a paper published by Michael Rubin, a lecturer at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Biden's attitude to Iran for the past decade is considered soft and conciliatory (Haaretz, 31 August 2008).
Although Obama favours diplomacy, he has not ruled out the option of militarily dealing with Iran. In August 2008, he reiterated that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a "game-changer for the region," and argued for American action "before Israel feels like its back is to the wall" (Jerusalem Post, 25 August 2008). Even Biden responding to the allegations of being soft on Iran has cited his pro-Israeli credentials and argued that a nuclear Iran is not acceptable (Jerusalem Post, 1 September 2008).
Obama's first staff appointment post election is seen to be a message to Iran. By nominating Rahm Emmanuel to be the chief of staff, the President-elect also calmed ruffled nerves in the pro-Israeli lobby in America, who have consistently argued for a hawkish stance on Iran. The appointment's significance was elucidated by Emmanuel's father who said "Of course he will influence the president to be pro-Israeli" (The Australian, 10 November 2008).
The new administration also faces opposition from European allies in its quest for an unconditional dialogue with Iran. Sidelining Security Council resolutions against Iran would be another example of American unreliability in the eyes its European allies (The Washington Post, 22 June 2008). It is therefore not surprising that Obama chose to downplay the letter from Tehran and reiterated the American position against Iranian activities in the region.