Barack Obama hoped to launch a new era in relations with the Islamic Republic but, a year on, stalemate prevails. David Patrikarakos talks to Iran’s atomic ambassador and to critics in Israel and the US about what went wrong.
In March 2009, two months after his inauguration as president, Barack Obama spoke directly to Iran’s leaders and people. In a video message with Persian subtitles on Nowruz (Iranian New Year), he acknowledged the “serious differences that have grown over time” between the two countries, but said the US now sought engagement “grounded in mutual respect”.
Obama’s offer to talk was the most significant move towards reconciliation since diplomatic relations between the US and Iran were severed in 1980, after Iranian militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The Iranian government had played a discreetly supportive role during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by briefing western intelligence agencies on al-Qaeda and promising to search for US pilots shot down over its territory. Its reward was a place in George W Bush’s “axis of evil”, which convinced many Iranians that détente with the US was impossible.
Through an aide, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, welcomed “the interest of the American government to settle differences”, but said Washington “should realise its previous mistakes and make an effort to amend them”. And then, nothing.