Obama’s policy towards Iran and American power in the Middle East

An esteemed reader, and we are very glad to have him chiming in, asks me: ?Old friend, Obama was correct in not taking sides when the Iranian election results had first triggered the protests. Given that non-elected clerics decide who’s permitted to run for elected office, legitimacy becomes lost long before the first ballot is cast – regardless of the final count. However, the protests obviously morphed into a battle for genuine representative government and Hossein Mousavi has opted to make that his quest. Accordingly, wasn’t Obama’s shift to a more unambiguous condemnation saliently late by anyone’s reasonable standards? It’s pretty sad when France, Britain and Germany march for freedom ahead of us.? Thanks for that important and timely question.

First of all, I don’t think Obama’s stronger words were late at all. I think they were well calibrated to manage the twin (and not always fully compatible) imperatives of promoting American values and defending American interests. The administration has been pretty strong in defending the rights of Iranians to free assembly and protest, which is proper. However, the administration has also remained carefully neutral on the political power struggle that has been taking place at a parallel register to what is happening on the streets of Iranian cities. This is a wise policy in my view, given how opaque the internal machinations within the ruling elite in Iran have been. Obama and his supporters have been making the case that it would be a strategic mistake for the United States to be openly seen as taking sides in the power struggle within the Iranian elite, providing the ruling faction with a more plausible basis for making its claim that this is all being driven by American and British agitation, and therefore justifying a harsher crackdown and delegitimizing opposition forces. The rejoinder that ruling forces are making that claim anyway elides the fact that more overt intervention, even rhetorically, would make this claim less preposterous and have a negative impact in Iran. The fact that no opposition forces are urging the US government to take this stance seems to me decisive evidence that the administration is doing the right thing.

Beyond this, there is an additional concern that the administration must take into consideration but cannot really articulate publicly. American interests regarding Iran cannot be based on simply encouraging regime change or transformation from within. US interests will remain very similar no matter which faction takes power in Iran. On the most central issue, the nuclear question, there is no evidence that the opposition forces within the ruling elite led by Rafsanjani and Mousavi are any less committed to pursuing the research and development that brings Iran ever closer to nuclear power and which is the biggest single issue between the two countries. Whoever takes power in Iran, the effect of the ongoing occupation in Palestine will still be a major disruptive element in the relationship. It’s not clear at all that regime change or transformation would resolve any of the most fundamental questions facing US-Iranian relations. Moreover, assuming for a moment that the opposition will fail to create major change in Tehran, the United States will still have to be pursuing its interests as it was before the election dispute, with the interesting “open hand” combination of incentives and implicit threats that has been crafted by the new administration. It would make little sense for the administration to essentially abandon its opening to Iran, whomever is in power, because of an internal power struggle the outcome of which is entirely unpredictable. The worst case scenario, surely, would be for the administration to prematurely and unwisely take sides in an internal power struggle in Iran, thereby foreclosing and obviating a rather well-thought-out and carefully implemented strategic change in the American posture towards that country.

Finally, I think it would be a mistake to measure US policy towards Iran according to the positions taken by secondary powers like Britain, France and Germany. They simply do not have the same interests and responsibilities globally and in the Middle East that the United States does. They are therefore much more free than the United States to take extra-strategic positions without significant fear of potential consequences. The United States is treading very carefully in Iran, as it certainly should. There is far too much at stake for us to adopt a policy driven by emotions and sentiment, and the promotion of American values must be tempered with a due regard for important American interests in the region and the world.

At a panel discussion on an Arabic-language TV program yesterday, I made the case that US policy towards Iran is best advanced at this stage by allowing the upheaval in that country to play itself out without undue and possibly counterproductive American intervention, while redoubling efforts to make the United States appear to be a more solid pole of influence in the region. There are clear signs that Iran’s allies in the Arab world are deeply shaken by the internal unrest in that country, and the most effective American response would surely be to maintain its existing conditions on the engagement with Iranian allies like Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, take steps to reinforce its usefulness as a partner with its Arab allies, and confirm its indispensability to the region by ensuring that there is, in fact, progress on the most important political issue in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the United States holds firm while Iranian power shakes due to this political earthquake, and major progress such as an Israeli settlement freeze is accomplished, American influence in the region will be significantly advanced for the first time in almost a decade, if not longer.