Giving ‘Engagement’ a Bad Name: Obama’s Iran Policy at One Year

Flynt Leverett & Hillary Mann Leverett

The first anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States came this week. The sharpest criticism of Obama’s first-year record on domestic and economic affairs came from the Nobel prize-winning economist, New York Times columnist, and Princeton professor Paul Krugman.

This line from Krugman encapsulates the concern many of us have:

“I’m pretty close to giving up on Mr. Obama, who seems determined to confirm every doubt that I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.”

Unfortunately, this assessment applies just as well to Obama’s approach to foreign policy. For us, Obama was an attractive candidate, first of all, because of his campaign commitment to end not just the war in Iraq but also “to end the mindset” that led the United States into that war. We and others hoped that Obama’s courageous pledge to make “engagement” a pillar of his foreign policy, especially with countries like Iran, would be seriously pursued. In his inaugural address, his first television interview with Al-Arabiyya, and his Nowruz message to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, Obama’s early references to engaging Iran on the basis of “mutual interests” and in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” seemed promising to many.

But Obama’s decision to appoint prominent supporters of the Iraq war to key positions in his administration—Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Middle East super-adviser Dennis Ross—was an early and disturbing sign that the new President might not be serious about his pledge to “change the mindset” that guides much of America’s Middle East policy and pursue purposive, strategically-grounded diplomacy with Iran. Obama’s team has done little or nothing to help him develop a genuine strategy for realigning US-Iranian relations, in the way that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger had a serious strategy to guide their “engagement” with China.

In the end, Obama and his advisers have spent their entire first year—and much of their political capital—trying to game the Iranian system (by ignoring President Ahmadinejad’s letter to Obama and instead trying to go over Ahmadinejad’s head by communicating directly with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and issue ultimatums (e.g., ship most of your current stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of Iran before the end of 2009 or face “crippling” sanctions) that they now pass off as attempts to “engage” the Islamic Republic. And if those attempts did not succeed, that is attributed to internal Iranian “paralysis”, not to any substantive deficiencies in US policy.

But, even as his initial rhetorical pretensions about “engaging” Iran are deflated, the President and his team want to claim that their “engagement” policy has been successful after all. As we predicted in a New York Times Op Ed in May—before Iran’s June 12 presidential election and subsequent controversy surrounding its outcome provided an “excuse” to back away from serious diplomacy with Tehran—Obama’s professed interest in “engagement” is being used to build support for more coercive measures against Iran, not to recast fundamentally the US-Iranian relationship. To demonstrate this, one has to look no further than what Obama himself told Time’s Joe Klein this week:

“On Iran, one of our trickiest foreign policy challenges. We have held the international community together. Both in our engagement strategy, but also now as we move into the other track of a dual-track approach. Which is if they don’t accept the open hand, we’ve got to make sure they understand there are consequences for breaking international rules. It’s going to be tough, but I think the relationship we’ve developed with Russia will be very helpful. The outreach we’ve done to our traditional NATO allies will be very helpful. The work that we’ve done with China—including the work we’ve done with China to enforce sanctions against North Korea—will help us in dealing more effectively with Iran.”

This proposition—that, because of Obama’s half hearted efforts at “engagement”, the United States is now in a stronger position to persuade Russia and China of the case for sanctions—is now being echoed by many of the same foreign policy elites and institutions in Washington that helped cheerlead the Bush Administration as it launched the Iraq war .

Against this, our fundamental criticism of Obama’s Iran policy is not that engagement has failed but that it has yet to be tried in any serious, strategically-grounded fashion. Yes, Obama offered some nice words and wrote a couple of letters to the Supreme Leader (while, as noted, declining to respond to a letter sent to him by Ahmadinejad). But he has shown no strategic understanding of the imperative of managing Iran’s rise and accommodating it in a new regional order in the Middle East—certainly, Obama has displayed nothing comparable to Nixon’s keen awareness of the importance of a diplomatic opening with China in the early 1970s.

Lacking such insight, Obama has never seen fit to address the Iranians’ longstanding interest in defining a “comprehensive framework” for US-Iranian negotiations, aimed at a fundamental change in the character of US-Iranian relations. Tehran has come to view the definition of such a framework as essential for serious US-Iranian engagement, given that repeated efforts over 20 years to cooperate with the United States on particular issues (Lebanese hostages, arming Bosnian Muslims, Afghanistan after 9/11) have produced no significant strategic benefits for the Islamic Republic. Obama also declined to take concrete steps to show Tehran that he was serious about forging a different sort of US-Iranian relationship. In particular, he refused to stop overt and covert initiatives to destabilize the Islamic Republic that he had inherited from his predecessor.

Under those circumstances, there was little chance that Obama’s half hearted—or, half baked—efforts at “engagement” would be seen in Tehran as serious and credible. In a year, Obama has succeeded only at giving engagement a bad name.

Obama’s failure to pursue engagement with Tehran in a substantive and strategically serious way has not been limited to the nuclear issue. The Obama Administration has not even tried to look like it is seeking to engage Iran on the range of daunting regional challenges facing the United States. During his first year in office, for example, President Obama has rolled out two high-profile policy announcements regarding Afghanistan. Neither offered any substance (and the second offered hardly any mention at all) regarding a regional strategy for engaging Afghanistan’s neighbors—including, perhaps most importantly, the Islamic Republic of Iran—in collective efforts to stabilize the security environment there and promote a political settlement.

This is strategically short sighted, in the extreme. In anticipation of the “Friends of Afghanistan” conference to be held in London at the end of this month, Karl Inderfurth and Chinmaya Gharekan have published an Op Ed, “Afghanistan Needs a Surge of Diplomacy”, in The New York Times in which they quote a statement issued recently by 20 former foreign ministers—“there needs to be a regional solution to Afghanistan’s problems”. Amplifying on this point, the Op Ed argues specifically that, “to reach the goal of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, the country must have better relations with its powerful neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and Russia”.

More specifically, engaging Iran and other neighbors of Afghanistan is critical to any serious effort to broker a political settlement to what remains an ongoing civil war there. As Hillary Mann Leverett has attested from her own experience as a US official negotiating with senior Iranian diplomats regarding Afghanistan for almost two years during 2001-2003, Tehran’s cooperation with Washington was critical to the initial success of international efforts to stand up a post-Taliban political order in Kabul. Iran has longstanding and influential ties with a wide range of powerful regional warlords. In many cases, Tehran was able to deliver its allies to the bargaining table to support the new Karzai government. In other cases, the Iranians kept some of their more recalcitrant Afghan partners on the sidelines, to prevent them from playing a “spoiler” role. The Iranians have important contributions to make in putting Afghanistan on a more stable trajectory. But this reality seems to be almost completely excluded from the Obama Administration’s calculations about Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration has been just as negligent in its failure to engage Iran regarding post-conflict stabilization in Iraq. Recent discussion on Iraqi politics has focused on the disqualification of 500 or so potential candidates in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Some commentators have suggested, without any particular evidence, that the disqualification reflects Iranian interference in Iraqi politics. For a more granular analysis of the disqualification, see the following pieces by Reidar Visser; click here and here.

Looking beyond the immediate issue of the disqualification, the bigger picture is this: Iran is and will be a hugely influential player in post-Saddam Iraq. Tehran believes that there are vital Iranian interests at stake there, and will pursue policies intended to protect those interests. Iran has cultivated deep ties to an extensive range of important political actors in Iraq. The Islamic Republic supported virtually all of the major Iraqi Shi’a parties and their associated militias in exile, while Saddam Husayn was in power. Iran also has longstanding ties to the major Iraqi Kurdish parties and political figures, going back to the time when these Kurdish groups were the backbone of opposition to Saddam’s regime. Since Saddam’s overthrow, Tehran has worked assiduously to bolster its ties to Iraq’s new political elite and to reinforce its influence through burgeoning economic links. This strategy has given the Islamic Republic many cards to play to protect its interests in Iraq. As The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss pointed out this week , the trend in the relative balance of influence is clear: “the US has less and less leverage in Baghdad these days—and Iran has more and more”.

Given this reality, Iraq’s future should be one of several important regional issues included on a comprehensive agenda for US-Iranian strategic dialogue. At a minimum, the United States should not let Iraq become an arena for proxy conflict with Iran—as Lebanon became in the 1980s. More positively, the United States should be working to persuade Iran to use its considerable influence in Iraq in ways that support American goals in the region. The Obama Administration’s failure to do this, as it seeks to position the United States to withdraw military forces from Iraq, is a profound dereliction.

President Obama’s failure to engage Iran also has deeply negative consequences in the Arab-Israeli arena. The United States is not going to be able to pry Syria away from its alliance with the Islamic Republic simply by brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace that returns the Golan Heights to Syrian control (and this administration is not about to put serious pressure on the Netanyahu government over the Syria track anyway). Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been quite clear on this point with his increasingly regular calls for a “comprehensive” peace settlement in the region. Moreover, by refusing to engage with other Iranian allies—in particular, HAMAS—the Obama Administration condemns its diplomatic efforts on the Palestinian track to failure. To think that, somehow, the United States can “corner” Iran by mediating Arab-Israeli peace is severely misguided. At this point, it is necessary to acknowledge that the United States will not be able to broker negotiated settlements on the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict without a more productive relationship with Iran.

A year after President Obama’s inauguration, America’s Iran policy—and, therefore, the Obama Administration’s “strategy” (to the extent there is one) for the Middle East as a whole—remains fundamentally incoherent.

Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation’s geopolitics of energy initiative and teaches at Penn State’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is the president of a political risk consultancy. She is a former State Department and National Security Council official who participated in numerous rounds of secret negotiations with Iran. Both are former National Security Council staff members.

We are grateful for permission from Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett to reprint this piece from their blog:

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