Iran General NewsU.S. encounters limits of Iran engagement policy

U.S. encounters limits of Iran engagement policy


ImageNew York Times: For two days this month, Gen. James L. Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, and Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, were in the same place at the same time, attending a high-level security conference in Munich with a number of high-ranking officials from around the world. And yet the two made no plans to meet with each other. The New York Times


ImageWASHINGTON — For two days this month, Gen. James L. Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, and Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, were in the same place at the same time, attending a high-level security conference in Munich with a number of high-ranking officials from around the world. And yet the two made no plans to meet with each other.

Whatever happened to engagement?

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama declared himself open to dialogue even with intransigent states like Iran. But there is little diplomatic nicety to be seen these days, as the administration presses tough new sanctions aimed at the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Monday of a drift toward a military dictatorship.

White House officials maintain that they have not abandoned Mr. Obama’s pledge of engagement, and point to the numerous times in the past year that he reached out to Iran, including a YouTube video to the Iranian people; a letter from Mr. Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and even an offer to help Iran buy isotopes for a medical research reactor.

But the nonencounter in Munich between General Jones and Mr. Mottaki, like the full court press on Iran by Mrs. Clinton and other envoys to the region this week, shows that the administration is coming to terms with the limits of its engagement policy, many foreign policy experts say.

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said administration officials were learning from experience.

“There was a thesis a year ago that the differences between the United States and Iran was subject to diplomatic mediation, that they could find areas of common experience, that we were ready to have a dialogue with each other,” Mr. Takeyh said, but “those anticipations discounted the extent how the Iranian theocracy views engagement with the United States as a threat to its ideological identity.”

And if Mrs. Clinton is correct that the Revolutionary Guards, not the politicians or the clerics, are becoming the central power in Iran, the prospects for rapprochement can only look worse.

Not that Iran’s political and religious leaders, so far, have demonstrated much interest in Mr. Obama’s outreach.

Instead, administration officials say, the biggest benefit of Mr. Obama’s engagement policy now is not dialogue or understanding with adversaries, but simply a defusing of a worldwide view that the United States is part of the problem, a demonstration that the problem is Tehran’s intransigence, not Washington’s pique.

“What the president has achieved is that he has outed Iran,” a senior administration official said Friday. He said Iran, by refusing to respond positively, had exposed itself as uninterested in a better relationship with the United States.

That is now the central point of the new White House outlook on engagement, and it extends, administration officials say, to Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba as well. Mr. Obama, for instance, was criticized for shaking hands with Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, at a summit meeting in Trinidad and Tobago last year, but White House officials say that gesture has helped with Latin American views of Mr. Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric.

In the months ahead, administration officials hope they will benefit from a global perception that Mr. Obama has reached out to North Korea, Cuba and even Syria.

The United States is on the verge of returning an ambassador to Syria five years after the American ambassador was recalled to protest Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon. While Washington and Damascus are still far apart on issues like the Arab-Israeli peace process and militant Islamic groups like Hezbollah, administration officials say they are hoping for a warming relationship.

In the case of Cuba, progress has been slower. While Washington and Havana have had some talks on migration issues, and Cuba allowed American medical flights from Haiti to pass through Cuban airspace, there is no sign yet of any real thaw. But there, again, White House officials insist that at least Mr. Obama has not given Cuban leaders the opportunity to hold up the United States as a convenient target.

But Iran is where the administration is pinning most of its hopes about the perception of American engagement. At a news briefing on Thursday, the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, presented this latest metamorphosis of the administration’s thinking: that engagement is not necessarily about the two adversaries, but rather, about the worldview on America. The White House, he said, is trying to get Russia and China to join the United States, Britain, France and Germany — a group referred to in diplomatic circles as the P5+1, for the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany — in imposing harsher sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of a nuclear program. While it remains unclear whether the effort will succeed, Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran had paved the way for a united Security Council resolution.

“We would not be here unified in the P5+1 were it not for engagement,” Mr. Gibbs said. “Because we engaged, it demonstrated to the world that the choices that Iran made were choices that it alone had to vouch for.”

That is a far cry from the argument Mr. Obama has made in the past about why American and Iranian leaders needed to talk. In his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo last June, Mr. Obama spoke of the need for both nations to overcome decades of mistrust.

“There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect,” he said. Mr. Obama even acknowledged that the role the United States played in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 was a source of some of the tension, then added that “rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.”

But that was before the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters disputing the presidential election last June, and before Iran refused to fully sign on to an agreement to ship the country’s low-enriched uranium to a third country for further processing.

After those events, Mr. Obama has sounded increasingly clear about the limits of engagement. Last Tuesday, he said he had “bent over backwards to say to the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are willing to have a constructive conversation” about issues between the two countries. “They have made their choice so far.”

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