Obama's Iran Problem

September 25, 2013 Topic: The Presidency Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Iran Problem

Do new moves show he's back in diplomatic action, or is he running out the clock?


Is President Obama pursuing a foolish policy aimed at appeasing an unappeasable Iran? Or is his outreach a sensible move that signals he is moving, as John B. Judis, puts it in the New Republic, towards realpolitik?

Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal is scoffing at Obama's speech at the United Nations yesterday. Obama sounded a cautious note: "The roadblocks may prove to be too great but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”  But the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's refusal to meet with Obama at the U.N. General Assembly meeting sent the Journal into transports of rage. It was nothing less than "an expression of lordly contempt for what Iranian leaders consider to be an overager suitor from an unworthy nation." At the same time, opposition to Obama's more concessive tack is also manifesting itself on Capitol Hill, where Senator Marco Rubio headed a group of Republican legislators--one that included Roy Blunt, Pat Roberts and Ted Cruz--who stated in a September 24 letter, "we are...troubled by reports that you might be considering offering a new proposal that would leave the door open to a nculear Iran, perhaps allowing Iran to preserve part of its nuclear weapons program." It continues, "Given this record and the risks, Iran must not be allowed to retain any enrichment or processing capabilities." Any? This is a prescription for war since it precludes a diplomatic approach--no Iranian government would give up in toto the right to enrichment.


Yet Iran does appear to be shifting its approach. The big reason is that sanctions, which skeptics claim never really bite, do seem to biting deep in Iran, throwing the country's economy into a tailspin. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that the moment has arrived for Iran to demonstrate "heroic flexibility" when it comes to treating with other nations. That is a marked change from the bluff and bombast that has characterized Tehran's statements in recent years. Iranians, legendary for their bargaining skills, have promised little and delivered nothing during prolonged negotiations over their nuclear program, which dates back to the rule of the Shah. But now Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has indicated that Iran should employ "heroic flexibility" in its dealings with the West. But heroism is not really what's needed. Rather, it is seriousness of intent, something that Iran has not hitherto displayed, leaving the field open, in the West at least, to neoconservative voices calling for everything from bombing Iran to regime change.

It is hard to avoid the sense that a shift is taking place in the Middle East. It started with the Syrian imbroglio, when Russia offered up a deal on chemical weapons that rescued Obama from what would have been a disastrous defeat in Congress. Now Iran, which is heavily involved in the fighting in Syria, and which wishes to protect Hezbollah at all costs, is taking a more conciliatory approach that is unnerving leaders like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Until recently, he could count on the atrabilious comments of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stoke apprehensions about Iran's plans. Still, Netanyahu's caution is not unwarranted: it would be a mistake to personalize Iran policy around one man--Rouhani--who could end up being the Dmitri Medvedev of Tehran. Initially seen as a sign of hope, then tossed aside by larger, more potent political forces.

Obama himself appears to be signaling a change, too. He may extol American exceptionalism, but his talk at the United Nations lacked any real paeans to idealism. He noted that America will work with regimes who may not meet the highest "international expectations"--a euphemism for undemocratic--when "core interests" coincide. And he stressed the limitations of American power to reshape, willy-nilly, the Middle East. He said,

The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries. The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion. Indeed, as the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed, the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or take on every problem in the region as its own.

John Judis sees this a potential landmark in Obama foreign policy, noting that the president's statement about working together when possible with distasteful regimes "represents a return to Obama’s earlier diplomacy and a repudiation of the idealism and interventionism of the last few years." Judis has a point. All along Obama has sounded this note. What emerges most conspicuously from his administration's foreign policy is that it really has not had a clear and distinct one, but, rather, a variety of policies, several of which have flirted with disaster. He was for Morsi, then against him. He tried to work with Putin, then soured on him. Now he's back to working with the Russian leader. He wanted to bomb Syria, then he went to Congress. And so on.

A case can be made that any administration's approach to foreign affairs is bound to have erratic qualities, but Obama has not conveyed the sense that he is really that interested in directing the American ship of state in what are turbulent waters. Rather he has sought to dry dock it; but tumult and upheaval abroad have kept him at sea. Now it is pivotal for him to demonstrate that he can achieve a UN Security Council resolution on Syria with Russian approval. His approaches to Syria and Iran will demonstrate whether he has grasped the importance of diplomacy and leadership or whether he is simply running out the clock on his own presidency.