- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2013

On Iran, don’t expect President Obama to have his “Nixon to China” moment.

Despite reports from foreign news outlets, the White House fiercely denies it is considering a trip to the Middle Eastern nation, throwing cold water on the idea that the president will personally reboot the U.S.-Iranian relationship with a visit to Tehran.

Diplomatic progress among the U.S., its allies and Iran — which led to a deal that, the administration says, halts key parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for modest relief from a crippling set of economic sanctions — may be the precursor to more normal relations down the road. But analysts say it’s foolish to think a sitting American president would travel to Tehran under current circumstances.

“It’s highly unlikely. The Iranian regime is adamantly opposed to the United States, which it denounces as the Great Satan. It’s just difficult for me to imagine a situation in which this Iranian regime would invite an American president. That would mean it is walking away from its ideological moorings,” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

“The regime thrives on opposition to the West. If it suddenly reverses course and invites the representative of the Great Satan to come to Tehran, then it is dangerously chipping away at its own legitimacy which it has stressed since 1979,” he said.

The last American president to visit Tehran was Jimmy Carter. He traveled there in December 1977, less than two years before Iran’s Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis that, in large part, cost Mr. Carter the White House in the 1980 race against Republican Ronald Reagan.

From 1979 until the recent nuclear agreement, relations between the U.S. and Iran were strained, though Mr. Obama made clear he wanted to change that.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Mr. Obama suggested that he would extend an olive branch to Tehran in a way that no other American leader had done in more than three decades.

During presidential debates, he vowed that his White House would talk with Iran “without preconditions,” a declaration that drew scorn from Republicans and some fellow Democrats.

After taking office, Mr. Obama made a top priority of repairing U.S. credibility abroad, especially in the Middle East.

Still, he made no breakthrough with Iran. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran raced toward a nuclear weapon, ignoring the grim warnings and economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies.

But the dynamic shifted this year with the Iranian presidential election of Hassan Rouhani, who is considered to be relatively moderate compared with his predecessors. The White House saw Mr. Rouhani’s election as a key window of opportunity.

Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Obama have since spoken by phone, and State Department officials held private negotiations with Iranian officials over the past several months that ultimately helped bring about the nuclear agreement.

Those developments, and Mr. Obama’s natural preference for diplomacy, led to speculation that the president would visit Tehran in a symbolic move reminiscent of President Nixon’s trip to communist China in 1972, which shifted the U.S.-Chinese relationship from its decades-long stalemate.

The idea gained traction this month when Kuwaiti news outlet Al-Jarida published an article claiming the president wants to visit Iran and is planning a trip sometime next year.

“Al-Jarida has learned from a U.S. diplomat that President Barack Obama is seeking to visit Tehran in the middle of next year,” the report reads, according to English translations. “The source said that Obama was waiting for the invitation. He wants to be the first U.S. president to visit Iran since the [Islamic] revolution in order to show that he is an advocate of peace and dialogue even with those who chant ‘death to America.’”

Within hours, the White House said there was no truth to the article and stated flatly that a visit to Tehran is not on the table.

Although an Obama trip to Iran would be a game-changer, analysts say Tehran has little reason to extend the invitation.

“There’s not as much common interest there as there was with the Nixon administration opening up to China,” Mr. Phillips said.

Iranian leaders “want improved relations to the extent they get sanctions relief, but they don’t want improved relations to the point where they surrender on one of the keystones of their ideology, which is unceasing opposition to the West, and to the United States as the leader of the West.”