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Turmoil in Iran Undercuts Obama Outreach

First there was the presidential video wishing Iranians a happy Persian New Year. Then a top American diplomat shook hands with his Iranian counterpart during a meeting on Afghanistan in The Hague, Netherlands. Then the State Department invited Iranian officials to Fourth of July picnics, a first since the two countries severed relations in 1979.

It was all part of President Obama's attempt to present a softer side in the service of one of his chief foreign policy goals: dissuading Iran from building nuclear weapons. Isolating Iran - as President Bush tried to do after labeling it part of an "axis of evil" in 2002 - hadn't worked, Obama said. It was time to try engagement.

That effort now has been derailed - another casualty, at least for the moment, of the brutal crackdown by the Iranian regime on people protesting the disputed results of last month's presidential election. After protesters and bystanders were shot, beaten and arrested, civil unrest has dwindled, and the government appears solidly in control.

Last week, Obama ordered the Fourth of July invitations rescinded.

Obama has become the latest in a series of U.S. presidents to be confounded by Iran's Islamic Republic, a line that includes Jimmy Carter's failed attempts to free 52 American hostages, Ronald Reagan's arms sales in the Iran-contra scandal, and Bill Clinton's overtures to an ostensibly moderate president who secretly expanded Iran's nuclear program.

Now, the tumult in Iran may complicate Obama's goal of negotiating a nuclear compromise at a time when, according to a May report by the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, Iran could be as little as six months away from building a nuclear weapon.

"The crackdown on the protesters has put the possibility of serious negotiations on ice for at least six months, if not for a year," says Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert and history professor at George Mason University whose wife, scholar Haleh Esfandiari, was imprisoned in Iran for three months in 2007.

It also underscores the pitfalls of the president's overall strategy of reaching out to other unpredictable adversaries, including North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. North Korea, for example, continues to work on its nuclear weapons program and has rebuffed every approach by Obama's administration.

Engaging with Iran remains a priority, Obama said Friday after he stepped up his condemnation of the Iranian government's tactics in stamping out dissent over the election, in which the government says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

"Even as we clearly speak out in a unified voice in opposition to the violence that's taken place in Iran, we have to also be steady in recognizing that the prospect of Iran with a nuclear weapon is a big problem," Obama said. "You're going to continue to see some multilateral discussions with Iran."

Even so, the president acknowledged that Iran's political turmoil, the most significant there since the 1979 Islamic revolution, will delay his efforts to develop a bilateral relationship with that country. "There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks," he said.

It's not a welcome development for a U.S. president who placed so much stock in words and gestures of goodwill.

"This whole crisis reveals some insecurity on the part of the regime, and I think an insecure regime is less likely to be willing to accept that outstretched hand that Obama is offering," says Michael Singh, a senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

And the nuclear clock is ticking. Iran says it continues to enrich low-grade uranium for civilian use, in defiance of United Nations resolutions. The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the BBC on June 17 that "my gut feeling is that Iran definitely would like to have the technology that would enable it to have nuclear weapons if they decided to do so."

A promise to talk

Obama made clear his desire to engage Iran during the presidential campaign. He said he would do "whatever is required to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons," and he said that would include meeting with Iran's leaders.

"I would," Obama said during a CNN Democratic primary debate in July 2007. "The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of (the Bush) administration - is ridiculous."

Obama took heat from opponents for that stance, but a Gallup Poll in June 2008 found that 67% agreed that "the president of the United States should meet with the leaders of countries that are considered enemies" of the USA.

After taking office, Obama sought to lay the groundwork for direct talks with Iran. In his speech to the Muslim world last month in Cairo, he made a point of mentioning that "the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government." That was a reference to the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, a bitter memory for many Iranians.

Obama also said for the first time that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear power if it complied with international treaties.

"There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions," Obama said June 4 in Cairo. "But it is clear that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point."

Then came the June 12 Iranian presidential election and its aftermath. It has created at least three problems for Obama's strategy: He doesn't want to undermine the protest movement, which includes senior clerics and establishment figures. He's not sure what the end result will be. And he can't ignore the brutality of the crackdown, some of it recorded on video.

"Once you see a lot of people clobbered and shot in the street, as a democracy, the American people start to get upset, and that will ultimately have an impact on what the president says and does," says Iran expert Fariborz Ghadar, management professor at Penn State.

Meanwhile, Iran rebuffed an invitation to attend a G8 meeting on Afghanistan last week in Italy.

Pressures unleashed

It's far from clear how recent events will impact Iran's future. The regime appears to have put down the uprising, but it hasn't repaired the first major public break among the ruling theocrats in three decades.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad's win over Mousavi, while other key figures in the Iranian revolution, including cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, questioned whether the election was legitimate.

"What has happened in Iran has revealed major splits that we really weren't sure existed before," says Judith Yaphe, research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Analysts differ over how deep those splits run. Some, including Bakhash, say the protests were broad-based, spanning social classes and ethnic groups, and that the regime's legitimacy has been permanently damaged.

George Friedman of Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence company, argues that the real story is a struggle between two clerical factions, neither of which favors democratic reforms.

Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who leads the Foreign Relations Committee, said, "I would suspect the pressures that were unleashed in the course of the demonstrations are really going to play out on a continuing basis you can't just put your foot down on that and make it go away overnight."

Initially, Obama reacted to the Iranian situation with caution. Three days after the disputed vote, he told CNBC that the policies of Mousavi, a pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution who was prime minister in the 1980s under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wouldn't be much different from those of Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying hard-liner. Both men, like most Iranians, back a civilian nuclear program.

On June 23, a widely circulated video showed a 26-year-old Iranian woman, Neda Agha Soltan, in her death throes after being shot, presumably by a government-backed sniper.

On June 24, Obama began a White House news conference by saying the United States was "outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments" in Iran. He added, "I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street when she gets out of her car, that's a problem."

Obama was asked whether Iranian diplomats were still invited to U.S. Fourth of July picnics. He didn't answer. The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent out a cable saying that "participation by Iranian diplomats would not be appropriate in light of the unjust actions that the president and I have condemned."

Engagement not over

To critics, Iran's crackdown shows the limits - some say the folly - of trying to deal directly with the clerical regime, which some observers say now looks more like a military dictatorship.

"Iran, and the Revolutionary Guard in particular, will never voluntarily give up its nuclear program, so Obama's policy is doomed to failure," wrote John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed June 23.

"That's ridiculous," Kerry said. "I think engagement has not even really been tested yet."

Kerry said Obama's Cairo speech has produced "enormous returns" in the Middle East, and may have influenced the recent Lebanon elections, where Iran-backed Hezbollah suffered a defeat. At some point, he said, engagement with Iran will have to resume.

"There are some limits here to what can he achieved rhetorically," by condemning the crackdown, he said. "In the end you've got to deal with the government that's there."

Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council who has long advocated engaging Iran, notes that President Nixon opened relations with China under Mao Zedong, who is held responsible for more peacetime deaths of his own people than Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union.

"Foreign policy is not about making you feel good," he says. "It's about serving interests."

2 Responses »

  1. “Foreign policy is not about making you feel good,” he says. “It’s about serving interests.”

    Does this mean that you will be in good feeling when you serve your interests on a sea of blood in iran??

  2. Well said Neda...not to mention look at the people he has quoted...nothing but apologists for the Mullahs. From Shaul Bakhash and Haleh Esfandiari who have both, along with Lee Hamilton, at the Wilson Center in DC have always provided grounds to put make-up on the ugly face of that blood thirsty regime. Also, FLYNT LEVERETT? You've got to be kidding! That's another character in the long line of DC cronies who have forever tried to launder the reputation of the Khomeinist regime. I have no idea how on earth these people can live with themselves knowing that they are basically living in the west and brazenly working angles on the fate of an entire nation of desperate people!