While I was out shopping near our hotel in Tehran today, I stopped in a market for a bottle of water. A man in the store named Hossein recognized that I spoke English, and when he asked where I was from, I explained what I am doing in Iran and we got into a conversation about US-Iran relations. Like several people I have talked to, he was skeptical about whether President Obama will or can fundamentally change US policy. He sees the problem as systemic and not about what person is in office. When I asked him what he thought about Obama’s shift in rhetoric toward Iran, he gestured and described it as holding out a carrot in one hand while hiding a bottle behind your back ready to hit.
It was interesting to read Hillary Mann Leverett and Flynt Leverett’s OpEd in the New York Times today in light of my recent conversations with Iranians. They write:
More broadly, President Obama has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran. On the personnel front, the problem begins at the top, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Clinton ran well to the right of Mr. Obama on Iran, even saying she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. Since becoming secretary of state, Clinton has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for “crippling” multilateral sanctions against Iran.
First of all, this posture is feckless, as Secretary Clinton does not have broad international support for sanctions that would come anywhere close to being crippling. More significantly, this posture is cynically counterproductive, for it eviscerates the credibility of any American diplomatic overtures in the eyes of Iranian leaders across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum.
Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department. Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.
In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.
It is important to think about how what the Leveretts call an “incoherent” policy appears to Iranians, and Hossein’s explanation sums up what I have heard from many people here, and echoes the message we have been carrying to members of Congress who support harsh sanctions. There is a serious lack of trust here of the United States government, generally well-earned given the history of US intervention in Iran, but the mistrust on both sides has become paralyzing and remains a serious barrier to moving forward with a diplomatc relationship. Of course direct negotiations, based on mutual respect and covering a broad range of issues, are the best means available for resolving these tensions.
The Leveretts conclude their piece with this:
It was not easy for President Richard Nixon to discard a quarter-century of failed policy toward the People’s Republic of China and to reorient America’s posture toward Beijing in ways that have served America’s interests extremely well for more than 30 years. That took strategic vision, political ruthlessness and personal determination. We hope that President Obama — contrary to his record so far — will soon begin to demonstrate those same qualities in forging a new approach toward Iran.
I have been very encouraged by the shift in rhetoric from the Obama administration, but I share many of the concerns they raise in their piece. In my discussions with Iranians, I have told them that I believe that President Obama is genuine in his desire to pursue diplomacy and understands that it is the best option, but faces many obstacles and pushback from various factions in the US. I am still optimistic, and of course inspired by the shared desire for peace I have seen demonstrated on my trip, and have assured people I meet here that we are working as hard as we can to pressure our government to follow through on opening up a diplomatic relationship with Iran.