Obama needs a coherent strategy to deal with Iran

Business Times - 05 Feb 2010

Obama needs a coherent strategy to deal with Iran


US President Barack Obama came to office promising to replace his predecessor's Axis-of-Evil approach to Iran with one based on diplomatic engagement. But against the backdrop of the stalled nuclear talks with Teheran and the rise of the Green Movement in Iran, Mr Obama's engagement policy has been coming under criticism - and not only from the neoconservatives.

In a Newsweek commentary, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass has called for 'promoting regime change' in Iran. Mr Haass is not a neoconservative but a self-described 'card-carrying realist' and a former official in the administrations of Bush I and Bush II. For a long time, Mr Haass seemed to be in agreement with Mr Obama's pursuit of diplomatic engagement with Iran. And while he is not in favour of using military force to achieve regime change in Teheran, he believes that the time has come to drop the engagement policy and to support the democratic opposition in Iran.

As someone who is also a 'card-carrying realist', I can understand why a foreign policy realist who believes that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could pose a direct threat to US national security interests would support recent steps taken by the Obama administration to increase the US anti-missile capabilities in the Gulf and consider them more of defensive than an aggressive manoeuvres.

I understand, but disagree with that view. Mr Obama has failed to devise a coherent strategy for engagement with Iran similar to the one that created the conditions for Richard Nixon to go to China. From that perspective, the Obama administration's military moves in the Gulf will raise tension between Teheran and Washington instead of achieving the goal of getting Iran to make a diplomatic deal with the West.

Mr Haass's recommendation to 'promote' regime change in Teheran runs contrary to any sensible realist viewpoint. As Niccolo Machiavelli cautioned, never start a fight you are not sure you could finish and win. There are so many 'what ifs' involved in any scenario under which the US pursues a policy of regime change in Iran: What happens if Iran retaliates by destabilising Iraq? What happens if tension between the US and Iran degenerates into full-scale war? And what happens if the political upheaval in Iran turns into a civil war?

Indeed, the third scenario should raise doubts about the morality of trying to intervene in a complex internal political conflict in a foreign country - as demonstrated by the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Hungary in 1956 and the doomed uprising by the Shiites and the Kurds in Iraq in 1991 after the US-led Desert Storm war over Kuwait. In both cases, Washington officials expressed support for - and even encouraged - the opponents of the regime to take action. Unless Americans are willing to use the full force of their military power to do regime change, promoting it could end up destroying the Opposition and strengthening the incumbent regime. In these cases, the US was perceived as sharing moral responsibility for that outcome.

And after the failed US-backed Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and even more significantly, the victory of Hamas in the 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories - which the Bush administration had promoted in the name of democratising the Middle East - how is it that Mr Haass and the other advocates of regime change in Teheran are so confident that the Ayatollahs would be replaced by a regime whose interests and values will be more in line with those of Washington? How about some sense of humility when it comes to predicting foreign policy outcomes?

From a Realpolitik perspective, Washington and Teheran need to resolve their policy differences, which include Iran's alleged nuclear military programme, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. Washington should strive for some sort of a 'grand bargain' under which Iran would freeze the development of nuclear military capability as part of a diplomatic deal that will also respond to some of Iran's concerns. If such an effort to reach a deal fails, Washington should work with regional and global powers in pursuing a policy of containment vis-à-vis Iran.

And if the democratic opposition in Iran has so much public backing as many observers suggest, there is no reason why this movement could not continue mobilising its supporters if and when the US makes a deal with Iran. If anything, US diplomatic ties as well as trade and investment with Iran should be in the interest of the westernised and educated pro-democracy activists in Iran.

President Obama and the US Congress will continue to have opportunities to express their disapproval of the human rights conduct and other domestic and foreign policies of the Iranian regime, without using US diplomatic and military power to replace it. After all, this is the same kind of policy that we apply today to our relationship with, say, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or China and Russia.

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