Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Aboutalebi Affair in Context

Paul Pillar

Of course, the United States has hardly applied any such standard consistently in deciding whom to do business with. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir come immediately to mind (appropriately so, as former heads of Likud governments in Israel, given the origin of much of the current opposition to diplomacy with Iran) as two who were welcomed to the White House as foreign leaders despite having been up to their eyeballs in terrorism. In their cases, it wasn't just providing interpretation services to kidnappers but instead being leaders of terrorist gangs that killed many innocent British and others in the 1940s. U.S. inconsistency, however, does not necessarily excuse whatever is the most recent episode of inconsistent policy.

How exactly the Aboutalebi matter will affect the political and diplomatic dynamics between Tehran and Washington remains to be seen. Iranian president Rouhani has his own destructive hardliners to deal with, and this newest demonstration of U.S. unwillingness to deal normally with the Iranian government complicates his task in the first instance. But perhaps his government can partly turn the situation around, as it shows signs of doing already, by using it as an occasion to demonstrate its own ability to take a hard-nosed stance against the United States. We should hope that the U.S. and Iranian governments are finding a way to communicate and commiserate privately about how they both have to play this kind of game from time to time if they are ever to get to a more normal relationship.

The fundamental underlying observation to make in evaluating this affair is that the Obama administration's most difficult Iran-related task right now is not finding the right formulations in writing an agreement with the Iranians. It is heading off the attempts to sabotage an agreement. Looked at this way, the otherwise unsupportable denial of a visa might be a prudent way of reducing the chance of something even more damaging—and of increasing the chance of moving Iran in a direction that achieves the nuclear nonproliferation goal while making inconceivable anything like a replay of the 1979 hostage-taking. Maybe for that reason it makes some sense for the administration to go along in this instance with the anti-Iranian huffing and puffing of the likes of Ted Cruz and Charles Schumer.

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