As Barack Obama begins his second term as president, the United States faces a moment of truth in its slow-burning conflict with Iran. Fortunately, re-elected presidents have a unique mandate to pursue game-changing policies -- and Obama has a particular opportunity to reverse America's failing strategy toward Iran.
Obama has already taken important steps to put America back on the right track: He has walked the nation back from the brink of financial collapse, ended a disastrous war in Iraq, and set a deadline for ending the war in Afghanistan. America's healing process, however, has not occurred in a vacuum. From the impending austerity crisis to the ongoing civil war in Syria, the world's lone superpower still faces the herculean task of revitalizing its leadership abroad.
Perhaps no issue better illustrates the complex challenges that will define 2013 than U.S.-Iran relations. There are signs that Obama understands the stakes here: As he put it in his second inaugural address, "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully -- not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear."
Iran is critical to solutions for no less than seven U.S. national security challenges: nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, counterterrorism, and Arab-Israeli peace. The status quo exacerbates each of these challenges: As U.S. Ambassador Jim Jeffrey -- a former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor -- candidly remarked: "If you want to be serious about regime change [in Iran], I give you Iraq 2003. Have a nice day."
And yet, despite Obama's stated preference for a peaceful solution to the U.S.-Iran conflict, we stand today at the precipice of a military conflict that policymakers and pundits almost unanimously agree would set off a chain of catastrophic events around the world.
How did a Nobel Peace prize-winning president see a long-standing conflict grow worse on his watch? Despite presenting a solid vision upon entering the White House in 2009, Obama fell prey to an institutionalized enmity to Iran that burned each of his five predecessors in the Oval Office.
Understanding how we got to where we are today holds the key to using Obama's re-election as a catalyst for finding peaceful solutions to the U.S.-Iran conflict.
Poisoning the Well
The dustbin of history is littered with missed opportunities by both Iran and the United States: The great tragedy of this relationship is that when one side was ready a rapprochement, the other was not.
In the place of conflict resolution has been an increasingly dangerous game of escalation. A toxic combination of festering resentments, perceived grievances, and overall mistrust -- all of which run deep in Washington and Tehran -- has fueled this growing conflict.
For both sides, history matters. Conspiracy theories are a hallmark of the U.S.-Iran conflict, but far-fetched tales often overshadow legitimate grievances.
For Tehran, the CIA-sponsored 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, longstanding U.S. support for the authoritarian shah, and America's support for Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war have shaped its adversarial approach to the United States. For Washington, the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, and the 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis are some of the many events that underpin America's antagonistic approach to Iran.
These memories are seared deep into the minds of today's decision-makers in Washington and Tehran. Here, I can speak from personal experience. For the majority of my four years at the State Department, the office door across from mine was emblazoned with a 34-year old, 4x4 inch square sticker that read "Free the Hostages" -- slightly worn over time, but otherwise untouched. Seemingly a relic of the past to visitors and foreign dignitaries, behind this sticker lies a powerful reality.
Both sides are captives of their history, creating a profound sense of victimization that continues to pollute the political atmosphere. The issues of today are being subsumed by a larger, institutionalized enmity that has been building for three decades.