Three Observations from Tom Donilon’s Brookings Speech

On November 22, Thomas Donilon, the National Security Advisor for the Obama Administration and by some accounts the President’s foreign policy guru delivered what was considered a seminal speech at the Brookings Institute on the administration’s Iran policy. The rationale for the speech was two-fold: to deflect GOP criticism of Obama’s Iran policy as being too soft, and to highlight how this administration has had more “success” isolating Iran than any other administration. However Obama’s massive shortcomings with Iran and its confused approach to the Middle East was also laid bare in the following ways:

1.)Donilon’s speech essentially makes clear that the Obama administration never had any intention or plans to fundamentally deal with the main sources of conflict dividing Iran and the US. This is clearly shown by his incapacity to refer to any aspect of the contours of negotiations between both sides. The most he says is that our “sincere offer of dialogue—with the prospect of tangible benefits for Iran” was “repeatedly rejected” by the Iranian government, as Tehran “ also rejected substantial economic, political, and scientific incentives.” Yet for his bluster, Donilon eludes specificity. At no time are observers informed of what the starting point of the negotiations were – not even a rough picture. Nor was the end game revealed. Was the purpose of Obama’s purported “engagement” approach the end of Iran’s indigenous enrichment activities or was it to place Iran-US relations on better trajectory towards normalization? If negotiations broke down, then what happened? What were the incentives? Why the ambiguity? Can he or any official, with clarity, explain what happened? As his speech outlines, he avoids the issue altogether, instead claiming that ‘when we came into office, Iran was on the rise, and now they are isolated and under pressure’ – both analogies are simplistic and mostly false.2.) His speech also highlights the Obama administration’s total and complete blindness to the domestic politics, sociology, and economic dynamics within Iran. From Donilon, we get anecdotes of a “regime … increasingly divided within and under great stress”, yet without any context at all. It increasingly looks like the administration essentially surfs the Internet for Iran analysis and has no real “deep bench” on what is actually happening in the country. This may be a result of the Dennis Ross syndrome, but now that Ross has departed, the black hole on Iranian domestic dynamics has no sound reason to remain as such. For a better more nuanced picture of internal Iranian dynamics, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s latest piece in the Guardianis a timely read. Unlike some of the histrionics behind contemporary Iran analysis, Adib-Moghaddam actually uses facts and numbers – which unfortunately is a novel concept to the larger Iran debate. Money Quote:

But that narrative [Iran’s economic crisis] does not correspond to the facts. The World Bank set the economic growth of Iran at 3.0% in 2010, and the IMF says nominal GDP grew from $330.5bn in 2009 to $360bn in 2010. The IMF recently wrapped up a visit to Iran and commended the government for early successes with the subsidy reform programme and the advances in the financial sector, which is boosted by a buoyant stock market. The argument that Iran is economically isolated does not hold either. According to the most recent UNCTAD report, foreign direct investment to the country has increased exponentially from $1.6bn in 2008 to $3.6bn in 2010. This does not mean that there are no serious economic problems in the country; there are many and they range from corruption to structural inefficiency. It means that there is another side to the Iran story that is subdued for ideological reasons. Ultimately, the US and to a lesser extent the European Union are disqualifying themselves from the Iranian market during a period of intense economic calamity. China and Russia say “thank you”.

I would only add that Iran’s main economic dilemma for the short term is inflation control, which is currently quite onerous on society. Moreover, Donilon, in typical Washingtonian doublethink, does not understand that when you put pressure on a country, politically speaking, you help the far-right and reactionary forces and undermine reformists. Very seldom do governments, if ever, domestically reform, particularly in the realm of human rights and political participation, under sanctions and threats of war. If Donilon or the administration had one iota of concern for what Iranians “deserve”, they would do all they can to lessen tension over the country. Their opening to Burma (regardless of how some have described the move as a Machiavellian anti-China approach), has slowly but steadily opened the political space in the country, which has created the space and possibility for democratic reform. Like so many others, I find it implausible that US officials don’t understand this dynamic, and taken together with US support for regimes that surpass Iran in human rights abuses (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Yemen, etc.). Donilon’s crocodile tears for Iranians are foolish, cynical, and ultimately, self-defeating.

3.) Finally, and most worryingly, is the utter delusion of regional politics that Donilon, and by extension, the administration, seems to possess. Throughout his speech, Donilon kept referring to a crude zero-sum gain framework to regional politics (i.e. If Iran gains, US loses and vice versa), when in reality ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ to US and Iranian interests are quite intertwined, creating, at times, points of contention and convergence. While Donilon claims that the “regional balance of power is tipping against Iran”, all he offers to support this absurd claim is boilerplate jingoism. From claiming that Iran wanted to “shape Iraq into a client state in its own image”, to totally mischaracterizing Iran’s relations with the GCC, to the impact of the potential downfall of the Al-Assad government in Syria, to plunging again into anecdotal Arab public opinion on Iran, Donilon’s picture of Iran’s strategic situation can be summed up by mixture of triumphalism and wishful thinking.

However, unlike what administration officials think, the picture is far more nuanced. Did Iran really want to turn Iraq into a client state or were they more worried by the permanent presence of US bases, which could potentially be used to stage attacks inside Iran? An objective reading supports the latter notion. More so, while Iran’s relations with the GCC are not on the best of terms, to this day, Iranians and GCC citizens still trade and interact with each other, while their governments have formal relations at the highest levels. On Syria, Iran’s leaders, though traditionally supportive of Al-Assad, are not blind to the reality in that country. Obviously, they understand that the same pathologies that existed in Ben-Ali’s Tunisia, in Mubarak’s Egypt, and in Al-Khalifa’s Bahrain, also exist in Al-Assad’s Syria. What makes Syria accommodating to Iran is the fundamental structural conflict it has with Israel in the region, chiefly the dispute over the Golan Heights. As long as that dispute remains unresolved (a certainty considering the type of regime in Israel at the moment), the structural conditions will eventually force Syria, regardless of its political system, to have some type of understanding with Iran. And it is quite fanciful to think that Iran would not have reached out to the Syrian opposition by now, the same way that they reached out to the Libyan opposition – regardless of official denials.

Finally, the most comedic insinuation of Donilon’s speech were the references to Arab public opinion. While it is undeniable that Iran has suffered a major blow to its image, what Donilon does not talk about is the consistent negative opinion that Arab societies have of the US. Furthermore, under the Obama administration’s stewardship, Arab public opinion is actually more critical than during George Bush’s tenure, a mind-numbing achievement considering what the Bush doctrine did to the Middle East. Incoherent efforts by Donilon and other US officials to present the Arab Spring as an anti-Iran phenomenon is simply laughable, as the overwhelming majority of governments are now under pressure and/or are collapsing within the region as pro-US client regimes. Thus, if 2011 is really 1989 redux, it is the US that is playing the Soviet role, not Iran.

On wider Iran-US relations, whatever the Obama administration claims about reaching a diplomatic outcome, it is evident that the failure to consider Iran’s security concerns (which are deep and systemic in the region) while consistently putting pressure on the country, may eventually lead to a conflict that the US says it is trying to avoid.

Regardless of what one feels about the current political system in Iran, its human rights issues, economic efficiency, or regional behavior, nothing the US has done has actually alleviated the aforementioned for the better. On the contrary, it has directly and indirectly led to more negative effects.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. America is still pissed about losing control of the Iranian oil.

  2. I think that Iran’s 2003 letter to Washington is a very accurate indicator of Washington’s attitude to Iran. If Obama and Donilon were sincere about improving relations with Iran, they would at the very least recognize the lost opportunity that the letter represented. Since they do not, it suggests to me that the Washington regime’s comments are posturing purely for the domestic market and the upcoming election in 2012.

  3. Any intelligent discussion of Iran does not look good on the resume of a career bureaucrat or politician in Wash DC.

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