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The Race for Iran



In a State of the Union address that devoted less time or attention to foreign policy than any recent counterpart, President Obama provided disturbing evidence as to the ongoing strategic regression of his administration’s Iran policy. 

Obama has moved, during just one year in office, from relatively forward-leaning expressions of interest in engaging Iran on the basis of “mutual interests” and in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” to rhetoric reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s description of an “axis of evil” (North Korea, Saddam Husayn’s Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran) in his 2002 State of the Union address.  Last night, Obama equated Iran’s nuclear activities with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—even though there is no doubt that North Korea has built nuclear weapons and no evidence that the Islamic Republic has done so or even tried to do so.  (For good measure, the President effectively put the status of Iranian women in the same category as that of their Afghan sisters.  While one can take issue with restrictions still in place on Iranian women, the educational, professional, and social standing of women in the Islamic Republic is among the highest in the greater Middle East and clearly superior to the status of women in Afghanistan.) 

There was no mention of engaging Tehran in last night’s speech.  Instead, the emphasis—as during George W. Bush’s administration—was on isolating and punishing Iran.  With regard to the nuclear issue, in particular, Obama said that “as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt:  They, too, will face growing consequences.”  (Departing from his prepared text at this point in the speech, the President added starkly: “That is a promise.”) 

To the extent that there is room left in Obama’s Iran policy for diplomacy, it is diplomacy of the sort pursued by the George W. Bush administration during its second term in office—engagement with America’s regional and international allies, to marshal support for intensified multilateral pressure on Iran, not engagement with the Islamic Republic with the aim of resolving differences and realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.  One could accurately characterize this as diplomacy about Iran, rather than diplomacy with Iran.  It certainly does not amount to “change we can believe in”. 

Obama’s retreat from any serious effort to develop a genuine strategy for engaging Tehran is matched by the absence of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the array of challenges confronting the United States in the broader Middle East.  The President said, literally, nothing—not a word—about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Arab-Israeli peacemaking.  His remarks on Iraq and Afghanistan focused on how U.S. military involvement in these conflicts is coming to an end.  It would seem that, under President Obama, America’s “grand strategy” for the Middle East has been reduced to killing as many jihadist terrorists as possible.      

The lack of a comprehensive strategy for the broader Middle East has important implications for the Obama administration’s approach to Iran.  In his speech last night, President Obama evinced no recognition that a more constructive relationship with Tehran is essential for the United States to achieve its high-priority policy objectives in the region.  There was certainly no sign of interest in engaging the Islamic Republic regarding post-conflict stabilization in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Iranian officials and analysts in Tehran have already begun to suggest that, if the United States moves ahead with additional sanctions or other coercive measures, Tehran might feel compelled to reduce its cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Indeed, Iran declined to attend an international conference on Afghanistan in London this week.  According to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Iran opted not to take part because

the approach of the conference is in line with increasing military action, following double standards on [fighting] terrorism, overlooking the roots or problems and not using regional potentialities in solving the problems in Afghanistan (emphasis added). 

The Obama Administration’s approach could well end up increasing the risks of proxy conflicts between the United States and the Islamic Republic in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Besides President Obama’s rhetoric, we observed what we thought was another important indicator of the strategic drift—and, consequently, the poor prospects of success—in the Obama Administrtion’s foreign policy.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not attend last night’s State of the Union address.  To be fair, she is in London attending the aforementioned conference on Afghanistan and a similar meeting on Yemen, so she had an acceptable excuse.  But, on the same day that President Obama would deliver his State of the Union speech, Secretary Clinton gave an interview to PBS in which she indicated that she did not anticipate staying on as America’s chief diplomat in an Obama second term.  The Secretary professed to be worn out by the rigorous demands of her job.  We do not doubt that Secretary Clinton is working hard.  But we took her statements as a tacit vote of no confidence in the direction of American foreign policy under President Obama.  A year in, there have been no foreign policy successes of note.  The prospects for major achievements over the next 2-3 years are not good.  Most likely, what Secretary Clinton can look forward to during the balance of her tenure is a hard and unrewarding slog.  From that vantage, a return to private life might not look so bad.  

Other harbingers about the direction of America’s Iran policy are not good.  The Israel Project—which describes itself as an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom, and peace…to help protect Israel, reduce anti-Semitism and increase pride in Israel”—announced earlier this week that it had purchased air time on CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for an extensive ad campaign, starting on the day of President Obama’s State of the Union address and continuing for three days thereafter.  This campaign is intended to highlight the Iranian “threat” to Israel—and, by extension, to the United States.  (To see the signature ad in the campaign, click here .)  The text of the ad script reads, in part

Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.  Since 2005, Israel has been targeted by 8,000 rocket and missile attacks from HAMAS and Hezbollah.  Iran has helped fund, train, and arm these terrorist groups.  A nuclear Iran is a threat to peace, emboldens extremists…and could give nuclear materials to terrorists with the ability to strike—anywhere.       

This, of course, harkens back to the same kinds of advertising and public “educaction” that helped to pave the way for the American invasion of Iraq.  And, in a manner reminiscent of the run-up to congressional action on the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia is now scheduled to hold a hearing next week on what the United States can do to assist the opposition in Iran. 

We always knew that President Obama would have to be prepared to fight in order to take America’s Iran policy in a new direction that truly served American interests and promoted regional stability.  We were never sure he was really up to this fight.  But, it is truly disappointing to see how rapidly he is pre-emptively surrendering to the other side.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. Jon Harrison says:

    Tom Degan is quite right. JFK was a disaster in his first year. Yet he learned and improved. No one can deny the fact that he alone got us out of the Missile Crisis without a nuclear exchange (although it was his mistakes at the Bay of Pigs and Vienna that brought us to the brink). And he above all was the moving force behind the Test Ban treaty. These two achievements were real, and critically important to the welfare of the American people.

    Obama on the other hand leads a different country. Our industrial base has migrated overseas, 30 million people are out of work or on short hours, the budget deficit is $1.4 trillion. I don’t believe a combination of Abe Lincoln, George Washington, and Jesus Christ could get us out of this fix.

  2. Tom Degan says:

    The entire country was focused on President Obama’s State of the Union address this week. I have nothing original to add to the discussion other than my view that it seems the prez is trying to jump start his faltering administration. A lot of “the experts” are at the moment dismissing this White House as dead in the water. If they had any concept of history they would know better. Many presidents in the past got off to a bad start. If George W. Bush were judged only on his first year in office, he would today be remembered as one of the worst Chiefs Executive in American history….

    [Long, awkward pause]

    Okay, maybe that’s not a good example. Let me try again….

    Jack Kennedy had a fairly shaky start in his first year (Remember the Bay of Pigs?) and yet he turned out to be pretty good at the job. A year from now will find us at the half way point of Obama’s first (I hope) term. Let’s see what happens between now and then.

    NOTE TO THE LIBERALS: To abandon all faith in this president now would not only be foolish, it would be a half-step away from insanity. Chill!


    Tom Degan

  3. jay says:

    Mr. Obama was never serious and neither was the American policy apparatus. It is naive to think otherwise. What U.S. Policy has done by pushing sanctions is what they did to Shiites during the first Gulf war – encouraging them to come out and then abandoning them. By pushing sanctions, Mr. Obama is forcing the Green movement to either tow the line or be accused of complicity – that is abandonment. It points to the fact that there was never any intent to engage – only a nice request to comply with the demands!

  4. Jon Harrison says:

    I don’t disagree with the other posters except that I don’t believe there’s any U.S. plan for war with Iran in 2-3 years. Gates made it plain when he was serving Bush 43 that war with Iran would be a disaster. And I don’t believe that Obama has the slightest inclination to make war. The real danger is allowing the current policy drift to continue. This could lead to a scenario such as A. Evans outlines. What he says in his post I think represents pretty shrewd thinking.

    We should keep Iraq in mind. I am very interested in what will happen there after U.S. forces depart. I see a revival of both the Sunni resistance and Mahdi Army in 2012. If necessary, Iran will intervene to help the Shia, and I don’t see the Obama administration reintroducing U.S. troops in an election year (unlikely that the Iraqi government would ask for them, anyway). If the Iraqi house of cards collapses, isolationism in some form will sweep through the U.S. body politic. Given that the fiscal challenges the U.S. faces may be insurmountable short of declaring national bankruptcy, it’s hard to picture the U.S. starting another major war in the Gulf.

  5. Dan cooper says:

    Nothing has changed in USA’s foreign policy except the colour of its president.

    In USA, “Obama” is in office but “Israel lobby” is in power.

    Nothing will change unless American people realize that Israel lobby is compromising their security and well-being for the sake of Israel.

  6. JohnH says:

    Interesting analysis from Mahan Abedin about the internal political situation in Iran. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/LA29Ak02.html

    Rafsanjani is on the ropes. He was the US’ chief ally during Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair. He was trying to reassert his influence by getting Moussavi elected. But he lost. Earlier he had lost control of the oil ministry.

    US nostalgia for the good old Reagan-Rafsanjani days could account for their reaction to the election more than any phony concern about the fate of the protesters. After all, getting the right person elected is more important than a little thing like election fraud (we know this from the US reaction to Hamas and to Karzai) or killing of a few protesters (US silence on Honduras).

    The protests can be viewed as a reaction by the once powerful Rafsanjani faction. A lot of young people sucked in by the rhetoric of change (we know how that works!)

    In any case, change is in the air. The pillars of the Iranian political elite, Rafsanjani and Khamenei, are aging and will not be around that long. Ahmadinejad and the IRGC seem to have effectively entrenched themselves around the levers of power. Any changes will almost certainly not be fought along the US conjured narrative of a democracy/theocracy fault line. Rather changes will be sorted out along uniquely Iranian fault lines unimaginable to Richard Haass, who seems singularly uninformed about the internal Iranian political situation.

  7. Lysander says:

    I agree with Arnold, but I’m beginning to think that the US objective is either 1) Sanctions are an end in and of themselves. Meaning that Iran’s nuclear program is an irreversible fait acompli but at least they will try to isolate Iran from the global economy to the extent that they can.

    Or 2) The objective is an eventual war with Iran 2-3 years from now, on terms more favorable for the US. In the meantime, the US plans to evacuate Iraq entirely and eventually, somehow, some way, by whatever means, pacify and withdraw from Afghanistan. I see recent overtures towards the Taliban in that light.

    This is not to say that such a plan is certain to work. And it assumes Iran will not be fully nuclear by then. But my guess is that it may be tried. At the least, they could more credibly threaten to attack Iran if they were less vulnerable to painful retaliation.

    The alternative is to accept Iran as a serious economic, political and now nuclear power with the ability to veto US/Israeli policies. As Arnold says, it is too painful to bear. But that means they will takes serious risks and accept substantial costs in order not to bear it.

  8. Arnold Evans says:

    Obama seems to have only given the most basic and general thought to any foreign policy issue before running for President. What ideas he had developed had not faced or withstood opposition and were accordingly weakly held.

    Today Obama’s Middle East policy is essentially a slightly more Israel-centric version of the policy of George W. Bush late in his term.

    Iran is by now likely already orienting its forces towards the goals of US failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on the attacks on Balochistan and Kurdistan and the murder of the physicist in Tehran.

    One reason I do not think the US is gearing up for war with Iran is because there is failure and then there is failure. There is the US voters deciding that violence levels against US troops and targets like that in the summer of 2006 is untolerable and demanding an exit, and then there is lots of anti-US groups getting Iranian-made surface to air missiles, industrial explosives and organizational assistance and causing levels of US casualties almost reminiscent of Vietnam. I think a US or Israeli direct attack on Iran could cause the latter, and I do not see any appetite for taking that chance on the part of the US.

    Unfortunately, it looks like Obama’s mind is made up, and until violence levels reach those of 2006, we will not see any adjustments.

    Iran is going to end up enriching uranium anyway. And it is not going to bow to pressure to adopt the Shah’s, Mubarak’s or the Saudi acceptance of Israel. It would have been far smarter to bite the bullet, tell Israel that there is nothing the US can do to prevent that, and come up with a way to live with a nuclear capable Iran.

  9. Jon Harrison says:

    Can’t argue with the points you’re making. It’s very depressing, isn’t it? I wonder though, given the economic situation the country faces, how far the U.S. public will allow a more confrontational policy to be pursued.

  10. @Obama Admin. says:

    in the past 8 months, the Obama administration has been trying hard to exploit the divide of the political elite in Tehran, and the commentators were arguing for a soon to be regime collapse scenario. now, he should look at his last night’s speech several times; a deeply divided political elite even on humanitarian issue. does that mean America’s political system is failing?

  11. @Cyrus says:

    I am not sure. Remembering Mr Obamas Speech and gradually switch after the election in Iran, there is much signs, that Mr Obama was serious about engagement with Iran. You can see at the beginning he almost did not criticize Iran’s behavior with the demonstration comparing with France, GB etc.

  12. Cyrus says:

    The term “retreat from any serious effort” on Iran implies that there was a serious effort at one time in the past. There never was. Going in, with the appointment of Dennis Ross, it was obvious what the strategy would be: to make a pretense of engagement, with an offer than was intended to be refused, so as to paint the Iranians as “intransigent” and make further sanctions (and eventually, war) more palatable to the public.