The next 18 months will prove critically important to U.S.-Iranian relations, which currently stand at an impasse. First, newly-elected President Barack Obama entered office having pledged to engage Iran using “aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions.” This openness to negotiate directly is a marked change from the policies of President George W. Bush. Second, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have won a second presidential term in very controversial fashion. The spirited campaign and post-election violence demonstrate that there are those in Iran who yearn for change, and the determination of these dissenters may lead the powerful clerics to consider softening some of their more oppressive policies. Third, U.S. intelligence agencies believe that, should it choose to accelerate its enrichment activities, Iran will be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015.
Despite seemingly intractable differences, there are reasons to be guardedly optimistic about the future of U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations. Though burdened with political constraints on its freedom of action, the Obama administration already has made overtures to Iran that may appear merely symbolic but have historically proven successful at breaking the ice in preparation for larger diplomatic initiatives.