Was Engagement Serious? (Con’t II)

In response to a post yesterday about whether or not the Barack Obama administration was ever ready to deal seriously with Iran — i.e., negotiate in good faith towards a deal — our most loyal LobeLog commentor, Jon Harrison, wrote this:

Isn’t there a distinction between having little hope (or even not believing) that engagement will work, and “pursuing engagement to pave the way for more coercive options”? I don’t think Wikileaks proves the latter. You can try a policy even though you doubt its efficacy, without necessarily entering into it with the idea that it’s just a PR exercise designed to grease the wheels of more coercive options. I respect the Leveretts, but I think they go too far in their assertion.

In any case, as I wrote the other day, Obama needed help from the Iranians if he was going to sell engagement in the U.S. The political deck here is stacked against engagement. The Iranians gave Obama nothing. Indeed, their words and actions have made the situation worse. They are at least as responsible for the failure of engagement as is Obama.

I often disagree with Jon (far from all the time, though), but he’s committed to high-minded discussions about these matters, so I’m always happy to engage him.

In this case, I agree with much of his response. But I’ll also note, as Gary Sick pointed out, that the WikiLeaked cables show the administration had little hope even before the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. This is to say, from the start, they were convinced it would fail. Although it doesn’t prove wheel-greasing — it does mean the administration was less likely to put the concessions necessary for a deal on the table. The failure of the talks becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

It is a leap to say that engagement was disingenuous. But not a great one. Still, it’s a question worth asking, especially when people like Dennis Ross make U.S. policy.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. Respectfully, I think both Jon, and Ali need to make clear whether there is a distinction between tactic and objective.

    To my mind, realities on the grond are assessed, and the best suitable tactic(s) are decided upon. While realities may change, requiring the occasional tweek of tactics, it should be a rarity that (well thought out) tactics need 180 degrees change, much less does it make sense to adopt concurrently diametrically opposed tracks — engagement and sanctions.

    The reason why P5+1 tactics cannot be coherenly discussed by onlookers must be because we collectively have no idea what the objectives are.

    If this fog of competing agendas that masqurades as a ‘goal’ aflicts constituencies within individual members of P5+1, as well as among them, then only 2 possibilities come to mind.

    Either, the importance of mid east, Iran, I/P etc is way exaggerated. Or, the governments of P5+1 should step aside and allow Brazils and Turkys of this world handle the situation.

    Egos will not permit the latter. I suspect there will be tactics for tactics’ sake for a long time with no objectives in sight.

    Rudderless state craft pilotted by multiple cheffs will of course lead eventually to utter chaos. Chaos may well be the objective of whoever has set this out of tune orchestra aplaying, and now pretending to be just humming along.

  2. I think the Leveretts are right. If you are genuinely following an engagement policy, then you discuss what you’re prepared to give in return for what. An engagement policy obviously involves carrots, not sticks. And you cannot follow a carrot strategy while lining up the sticks behind the donkey’s back. It makes the donkey nervous. And that’s what they were doing with their European allies behind Iran’s back.

    Same thing: if you want a good marriage, you cannot conspire with your in-laws and make a list of potential punishments for your husband in case he cheats. Make the list in private if you absolutely must, but also make lists of how you’re planning to make it work and immediately act on it.

    The US’s problem is that they’re trying to stop Iran from having nuclear technology, even peaceful stuff, and there is no way to have an honest engagement strategy about that.

  3. While Jon makes an interesting point, I think the preponderance of evidence supports the Leveretts’ position.

    First, the time allotted to engagement was extraordinarily short. Serious engagement is a long process, not something that can be completed in a few short months, as was attempted in this case.

    Second, the argument that Iran needed to give Obama something is weak. It was the US, as the more powerful party, that needed to show “strategic restraint,” and provide concrete evidence that it was serious. There were many ways, overt and covert, that Obama could have signaled a new intention to Iran. First and foremost would have been a significant reduction of covert operations designed to weaken Iran. But to my knowledge none were taken.

    Finally, the US response was telling. Its offer had a ‘take it or leave it’ quality. Publicity afterward was blatantly false, designed to give the impression that Iran had accepted something it had not, creating international pressure to not renege or negotiate, even though it was clear to all parties that in the Iranian system the negotiators had no authority to accept.

    In the end Iran had no choice but to refuse the US offer, which sent all of Iran’s enriched uranium abroad with no guarantees that anything would be given in return. Iranian counter offers were ignored. And the US’ rejection of the Turkish/Brazilian deal was stark evidence that the US position was not one designed to open negotiations but instead a veiled dictate, designed to serve other purposes (more sanctions).

    On the other side of the coin, there is little to suggest, beyond Obama’s public statements, that the administration ever intended to engage Iran. After all the deception of the Bush years, I find it incredible that anyone would take a US government leader’s words at face value.

  4. “It’s a question worth asking” — fair enough, but what’s the answer? We simply don’t know. I can’t imagine Obama wanted simply to lay the groundwork for sanctions/military action. Now, whether some of his people (Ross, for example) were thinking along those lines, I dunno. It’s possible, certainly. Perhaps the situation is akin to Vietnam in 1963, when JFK was moving one way (toward disengagement) while people in the military and elsewhere were committed to staying.

    To me the key fact is that there is heavyweight opposition to engagement in the U.S. — in Congress, among the commentariat, and of course there’s the Lobby and its supporters, including the Christian Zionists. Given this, Obama had to have help from Tehran. They gave him nothing. Could Obama have been bolder? Sure, absolutely. But I doubt he would have gotten a positive response even then. A reorientation of attitudes in the ruling circles of BOTH nations is required if we are to move forward.

  5. The argument that Iran needed to give Obama something is by no means weak. The reality is that Obama is swimming against the tide here in the U.S. For that reason he needs Tehran’s help, and Tehran has been most unhelpful in both word and action.

    I’m not going to tar Obama with the Bush brush. It’s intellectually lazy to say that because one administration was devious, its successor must be also. Obama hasn’t tried hard enough, I grant that. But it takes two to tango, expecially when most of the power centers outside of the White House are lukewarm or opposed to the president’s agenda. For that reason the weaker party, Iran, has to step up and help those here in the U.S. who want engagement. Frankly, it’s far from clear to me that the Iranian regime wants engagement on any reasonable basis, which is too bad. The two countries’ interests dovetail to a remarkable degree. What’s wanting is enough push on our side, and any kind of push on theirs.

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