New rules of engagement

How can Obama pursue diplomacy with Iran if its leader is illegitimate?

New rules of engagementBarack Obama campaigned on a policy of engagement with America’s adversaries, and in his inauguration address offered an “open hand” to countries such as Iran. After his election, he had a certain degree of support in Washington for starting on a new course of diplomacy. But then came the June 12 Iranian election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power under heavy suspicion of fraud. With a crackdown on massive street protests that left at least 17 dead, Obama’s running room for engagement has shrunk. The turmoil in Iran raised the question of whether Obama would only bolster Ahmadinejad’s authority by sitting down with a leader whose legitimacy has been so tarnished. Not to mention how the U.S. government could trust any agreement reached with a regime that its own people accuse of deception, and whether the exercise would only serve to betray the reformers whose struggle for freedom stirred passions around the world.

For now, Obama’s hand remains outstretched—but not for long. He has given Tehran an end-of-the-year deadline to show that diplomacy regarding its nuclear ambitions is getting somewhere. But even long-time supporters are doubting that the overture can work.

The U.S. President kept a low profile after the disputed Iranian election, and was criticized by hawks such as Senator John McCain for not denouncing the election results or encouraging the protesters. While Obama said he had concerns about the vote, he insisted that he would not be drawn into the narrative the mullahs were trying to create: that foreign powers were fomenting the unrest. When Obama finally spoke out, it was to condemn the violence, but he emphasized that it was up to the Iranian people to pick their leaders. The approach worked, to some extent: in official statements, Tehran focused much of its blame on the U.K., even arresting workers at the British Embassy. For once, the target was not Tehran’s “Great Satan.”

As he waits for events in Iran to play out, Obama is aware that whichever man ultimately emerges victorious from the power struggle—Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Mousavi—both favour continuing Tehran’s march toward nuclear power. And despite Tehran’s insistence that it wants the technology for peaceful means, the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuke remains Obama’s pre-eminent concern. He summed up the high stakes at a press conference in Moscow this week after meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “In the Middle East, there is deep concern about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability,” he said, “not simply because of one country wanting nuclear weapons, but the fact that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, it is almost certain that other countries in the region would then decide to pursue their own programs. And we would then see a nuclear arms race in perhaps the most volatile part of the world.”

Given Obama’s concerns, the Iranian opposition is worried about the U.S. President legitimizing Ahmadinejad. A spokesman for Mousavi, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, told the Washington Times, “We are afraid Western countries, including the United States, will sign a deal with an Ahmadinejad government [even though] it is an illegal government that has not been elected.” But for now, Obama is committed to staying the diplomatic course, although the administration is emphasizing the priority of multilateral meetings with the so-called P5+1 group of countries—the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—not a personal tête-à-tête with Obama.

In fact, Vice-President Joe Biden tried to portray diplomacy as a vindication of the reform movement. Asked how Washington can continue to engage with Tehran without “breaking the faith with the reformers,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “Well, the way you do it is if they choose to meet with the P5, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protesters probably had some impact on the behaviour of an administration.” But, Biden said, Washington is “not rushing to sit down” with Tehran. “There’s already an offer laid out there by the permanent five plus one to say we’re prepared to sit down and negotiate with you relative to your nuclear program. And so the ball’s in their court.”

But even supporters of the engagement policy are now having their doubts about its prospects. “The main difference between now and four weeks ago is I am far, far less optimistic about the prospects for any kind of successful engagement. Even sitting down at the table is going to be more difficult,” says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. There have been two important changes in Iran since the election, notes Maloney.

First, the hard-liners have either silenced or imprisoned many of those with more moderate points of view, and disempowered reformers or more pragmatic elements of the regime. Second, they have propagated a narrative of the election centred on an externally directed conspiracy—of the world seeking to impose a velvet revolution. “If that is their mindset, it’s hard to imagine they will be willing to sit down with American diplomats and negotiate,” says Maloney, who nonetheless believes Obama should continue to try to engage Tehran.

But if the turmoil in Iran has made Obama’s policy of engagement less promising, it may have made a potential Plan B of multilateral sanctions more potent. “Whatever reluctance there was in European capitals will have been mitigated by violence after the elections,” notes Maloney. Russia and China, who are key to any successful sanctions, have long been reticent to confront Iran. But Obama seemed to make some headway with Moscow this week, when Russia and the U.S. agreed to jointly produce an assessment of the threats that Iran’s nuclear capabilities could pose to their countries. “We will be conducting a review of that and making assessments to find ways that the United States and Russia can co-operate more effectively,” Obama said. “That’s going to be very important.”

The two sides also discussed a global nuclear summit that could be hosted by Russia. And without mentioning Iran by name, Medvedev indicated he shared Washington’s concerns about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. “It’s our common, joint responsibility, and we should do our utmost to prevent any negative trends there,” he said. “And we are ready to do that. Our negotiations with President Obama have demonstrated that we share the same attitude toward this problem.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Western nations that if they “meddle” in Iranian politics, Iranians would “unite against their enemies into one fist.” That seems unlikely, given the rifts within Iran’s ruling elite. On July 4, while meeting with relatives of those detained after the election, former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who supported Mousavi, said the post-election events had caused “bitterness.” Though Rafsanjani denied there was a power struggle, the influential cleric, who heads the Assembly of Experts that appoints and removes the supreme leader, couldn’t hide his criticism of the government: “I don’t think that [anybody with a] vigilant conscience is satisfied with the current situation.” And the next day, a group of high-level clerics criticized the election results, even as some hard-liners called for Mousavi to be tried as a traitor and foreign agent. Tellingly, in a speech on state radio, Khamenei called for national unity while appearing to ignore such calls. “Friends should not be treated like enemies for the sake of a mistake,” the supreme leader said.

True to form, Obama remained hopeful. Iran’s “governing elites are going through a struggle that has been mirrored painfully and powerfully on the streets,” he said, after meeting Medvedev. “The fact that we have both said we are willing to work with Iran, at the same time as we have been very clear about our grave deep concerns with respect to not just the violence, has created a space where the international community can potentially join and pressure Iran more effectively.”

But the President said it will take time to see whether diplomacy can achieve anything. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to see whether a country like Russia, for example, is willing to work with us to apply pressure on Iran to take a path toward international respectability, as opposed to the path they’re on,” Obama said. “That’s not something we’re going to know the results of for several more months as we continue to do the hard diplomatic work of putting this coalition together to tell Iran: ‘Make the better choice.’ ”