This is a dangerous delusion, grounded in persistent American illusions about Middle Eastern reality. Because of failed wars-cum-occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war on terror that has turned Muslim societies ever more firmly against U.S. policy; and de facto support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the region is in free fall. Increasingly mobilized publics will not tolerate continuation of such policies. If, in this climate, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the blowback against American interests will be disastrous. Nonetheless, that is where our current strategy – negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber-attacks, and economic warfare against it – leads.
For its own interests, Washington must take a fundamentally different approach. President Obama needs to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as thoroughly as President Nixon realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Simply “talking” to Iran will not accomplish this.
Every American administration since the Iranian Revolution has talked to Tehran, usually to ask its help on particular U.S. concerns. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations sought Iran’s help to free American hostages in Lebanon. The Clinton administration coordinated with Tehran to arm beleaguered Bosnian Muslims when U.S. law prevented Washington from doing so. After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the George W. Bush administration against al Qaeda and the Taliban – a dialogue in which Hillary Mann Leverett participated for nearly two years.
In all these episodes, Washington got most of what it specifically asked for. But, each time, Washington pocketed Tehran’s cooperation, terminated dialogue, and used the purported “failure” of diplomacy to raise tensions, impose more sanctions, and come ever closer to confrontation.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Senator Obama pledged – as part of a broader commitment to end the “mindset” that produced the 2003 Iraq invasion – to engage Iran. As he embarks on his second term, President Obama is in danger of discrediting engagement by saying that he tried but failed to reach out to Tehran when in fact he has never seriously tried.
Since 2009, the Obama administration has participated in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran – and used Iran’s unwillingness to surrender to U.S. demands as a reason to impose the most draconian sanctions on a country since sanctions on Iraq during 1991-2003 killed more than one million Iraqis, and to come ever closer to regime change as the ultimate goal of America’s Iran policy. While U.S. officials excoriate Tehran for either “playing for time” or being too internally conflicted to negotiate seriously, it is Washington that has not been diplomatically serious. Iran has consistently been prepared to accept more intrusive monitoring of – and perhaps negotiated limits on – its nuclear activities, if Western powers would in turn recognize its right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.
But Obama – like his predecessor – refuses to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich. For this would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests – and as a rising regional power unwilling to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington (as, for example, Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak). No American president since the Iranian Revolution – not even Barack Obama – has been willing to deal with the Islamic Republic in this way.
Yet we return from our latest visit to Iran convinced this is the only way diplomacy can succeed. No one who has walked the streets of Tehran, seen that Iran’s economy is not imploding, and talked with a range of Iranians could think that sanctions – as severe as they are and might become – will compel either Iran’s collapse or its surrender. The only thing that will work is accepting the Islamic Republic and acknowledging its interests and rights – including safeguarded enrichment.
Accepting a rising regional power as a legitimate entity pursuing its interests in a fundamentally rational and defensive way is how Nixon and Henry Kissinger enabled the historic opening to China in the early 1970s. Their achievement was not to “talk” to Beijing; Washington had been doing that for years, through ambassadorial-level discussions. Their achievement was to accept – and persuade Americans to accept – the People’s Republic and its leaders as (in Nixon’s words) “pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them,” and to work with them on that basis.
Nixon’s initiative saved America’s position in Asia after the draining disaster of Vietnam and restored Washington’s global leadership. If Obama accepted the Islamic Republic in the same way, an equally thorough realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations would be possible.
Ayatollah Khamenei and the three Iranian presidents elected over the course of Khamenei’s 22-year tenure as Supreme Leader have all said that they are open to better relations with America – but only on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic. Today, engaging Iran on this basis is Obama’s single biggest foreign policy challenge. It’s also the only way for him to rescue America’s position in the Middle East and avert strategic catastrophe in his second term.