This was one of the most memorable lines from Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention: “…the greatest risk we can take is to try the same, old politics with the same, old players and expect a different result.”
Those of us who took him at his word hoped that he would apply this not only to domestic issues, but to foreign policy too. This author actually had the optimistic temerity to pen a piece imagining what the new president’s “new politics” toward Iran might look like, in an Alternet piece headlined, “What President Obama’s Letter to Iran Should Really Say.” Here is an excerpt from its conclusion:
Your interests and ours do not, and will not, always coincide, nor will we always view the challenges facing the world from the same perspective. Nonetheless, Iranians and Americans need to speak with one another, to share ideas, to work together on issues about which we already agree in principle, and to learn from one another on those with which we are in accord in practice. We can then, with mutual respect, build upon the relationship we have created to approach the more difficult issues — those that have locked our relationship into a confrontational dynamic for the past 30 years.
(An Iranian colleague informed me at the time that my letter, minus its byline, was e-mailed around Iran, sparking speculation as to whether or not Obama had written it himself!).
While my proposed Letter wasn’t exactly the same message that Obama transmitted to the Iranians during his 2009 Nowruz speech, there were sufficient resemblances between the two to offer, at least temporarily, some grounds for optimism:
We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
But the president’s Iran policy was soon channeled toward the “the same old politics with the same old players.” Robert Gates stayed on as Secretary of Defense, minimizing any meaningful change in rhetoric or policy from the previous Bush years. Veterans of the Clinton administration, such as Dennis Ross, were recycled and brought on board to deal with Iran policy. Sanctions continued to be equated with “diplomacy,” and cudgels confused with “carrots.”
Weeks before the 2012 US election, President Obama now finds himself in a situation where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who has made no secret of his hope that Obama’s Republican rival will be elected in his stead — is attempting to play Obama’s puppet master. Netanyahu’s ultimatum: either the US issues a “clear red line” for an American attack on Iran that is acceptable to Israel, or the Israelis will strike Iran on their own. And if the Israelis start a war, the US president will have no choice but to back Israel by getting involved. There remains the politically untenable option of Obama declaring openly that the US and Israel are not on the same page and that the US will not back an Israeli strike on Iran, but in the current political environment, that is highly unlikely.
Is there any way out for Obama? According to Akiva Eldar, a senior political correspondent for Haaretz, there is. Obama should buck the hysteria from the right-wing in the US and Israel and go to Iran as Richard Nixon went to China in 1972:
Obama lost the battle long ago for Netanyahu’s fans in the U.S. Jewish community and among the Christian right. If the Iran issue was critical to the U.S. presidential election then Obama should have already started packing. Instead of trying to bring the Iranians to their knees, he can offer them a way up toward restoration of their self-respect. What does Obama have to lose by flying to Tehran to begin a dialogue about ending the nuclear arms race and stopping Iran’s support for terror organizations and for the genocide in Syria?
Eldar, who served as Haaretz’s US Bureau Chief and Washington correspondent from 1993-96, was recognized as one of the most prominent and influential commentators in the world by the Financial Times in 2006. In 2007 he received the annual “Search for Common Ground” award for Middle East journalism. He regularly appears on major television and radio networks in Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and has appeared on Nightline, the Charlie Rose Show and on CNN and CBS news programs. So it is significant when a seasoned Israeli commentator like Eldar suggests Obama give a reconciliation speech in Tehran that says:
“No single nation should pick and choose which country holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations possess nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I’m hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal” (from Obama’s remarks in Cairo on June 4, 2009 ).
Eldar’s op-eds appear in The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Jewish Week. Will this one make its way into the American press? It’s a groundbreaking article that deserves more widespread attention than it has thus far received, especially from President Obama, who really needs a game-changer on Iran to stave off disaster.
As candidate Obama said back in 2008, “the greatest risk we can take is to try the same, old politics with the same, old players and expect a different result.”