Sorry Folks: Obama Isn't Going to Tehran

No Nixon-in-China moment is pending.

What a difference a phone call makes. Disappointment over the handshake-that-never-was swiftly gave way to hope for the future when Barack Obama called his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, for a fifteen-minute conversation as he wrapped up his outreach blitz in New York City, the first direct communication between the two countries’ presidents since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. With expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program once again running high, some commentators have seen fit to draw a parallel to the Nixon administration’s historic opening to China, a classic example of Realpolitik creating strange bedfellows. Feeding these hopes, Obama teased that a nuclear deal “could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship…one based on mutual interests and mutual respect...[which] could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.”

Considering the relevancy of the opening to China, the most obvious precedent of America making friendly with an ideological and strategic adversary of the first order, for current Iranian-American diplomacy is instructive. Assuming a way can be found to trade a curtailment of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities for an easing of crippling economic sanctions, could such a bargain yield a wider rapprochement between Washington and Tehran? The near impossibility of such a development in the foreseeable future says much about Obama’s limited room for maneuver in foreign affairs in this age of interlocking security challenges and domestic political paralysis.

China back then presented many of the same challenges as Iran does to American policymakers today : a regime that preached hatred of the U.S. to its people, worked to subvert its neighbors and undermine America’s regional influence, furnished vital support to insurgents in a war that had drained U.S. blood and treasure, and stirred bipartisan hostility.

Playing the China card, however, offered strategic and political benefits that would not materialize from any gambit toward Iran. Richard Nixon’s interest in restoring relations with Beijing stemmed primarily from fear of an even greater geopolitical rival. By the time he assumed the presidency in January 1969, the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity with the United States and vigorously competed for global influence. The challenge facing Nixon was how to offset the Soviet threat when the war in Vietnam had overstretched American resources and sapped voters’ support of militarized containment and far-flung security commitments. Adhering to the time-honored diplomatic maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he appreciated that engaging Moscow’s rival for leadership of the communist world would unnerve the Kremlin and constrain any risk-taking behavior.

For a president looking to lower America’s profile in the Middle East after a decade of fruitless war and to rebalance resources toward the Asia-Pacific, Obama would find obvious advantages to a modus vivendi with Iran. Yet the strategic context of 2013 bears no comparison to that of forty years ago. A mutual interest in containing the USSR provided the hardheaded rationale for the Sino-American opening of 1971-72; there is no common adversary pushing Washington and Tehran closer together. The U.S. currently faces no peer competitor that Iran could help balance, as threats to its influence are regional in nature.

In the Middle East, Iran represents to U.S. policymakers what the Soviet Union did on a global scale in the early 1970s. It stands at the nexus of all of America’s regional troubles by way of its support for terrorism, its patronage of Hezbollah and Hamas, its firm military and diplomatic backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, its capacity to play spoiler in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its nuclear program possibly triggering a destabilizing arms race. These pressure tools are employed by Tehran as a means both of self-preservation against what is seen as an existential American threat to clerical rule and of fostering the regional hegemony it has historically enjoyed, meaning their wholesale abandonment, which any grand bargain with Washington would likely require, is unlikely.