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. Let’s face it, Jon. The US is the protagonist in the US-Iranian hostility. It is the US that is running covert ops in Iran. It is the US that spearheads the sanctions. It is the US that has frozen Iranian assets for decades.

    Because the US is putting pressure on Iran in so many different ways, Obama could have found some goodwill gesture, something meaningful to Iran, but not to US/Israeli interests, to provide a concrete signal to Iran. For example, responding to Ahmadinejad’s letters would have been a good start.

    Fact is, Jon, with all of the tools at Obama’s disposal and all of the channels available, I doubt that you can identify a single instance of Obama exercising strategic restraint, beyond vague rhetoric, of course.

    And, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect the party with its back to the wall to give up even more to entice the aggressor into negotiations. Besides, it would have been pointless. The powers that be in the US would have seen it merely as a sign of weakness and possible capitulation on Iran’s part, one more reason force Obama not to negotiate.

    In any case, Flynt Leverett makes his own convincing case for Obama’s duplicity–

  2. I try to read the Leveretts closely and while I think the piece you linked to is forcefully put, I don’t find it proves duplicity by any means. And I disagree to an extent at least with some of his other points. But you may be right, JohnH. Certainly I would agree with you that bad U.S. policies towards Iran are the genesis of the current impasse.

    How sincere Obama is about wanting engagement only he knows. Neither you nor I nor Leverett can say for certain. But I would point again to the stacked deck here in the U.S. Obama is an ex-community organizer and half-a-term senator. He doesn’t have the cred, much less the support here at home, to go it alone. Therefore a significant gesture from Tehran was needed. That they chose not to make it is their business, of course.

    Politics, including international politics, is the art of the possible. Obama in 2010 is not Nixon in 1971-72 — not to mention the fact that the broad mass of the American people welcomed an easing of tensions with China back then. (Or to put it another way, by 1971 the China Lobby had lost much clout, whereas the clout of the Israel Lobby today dwarfs even that of presidents). It’s easy for you or I or Leverett to say Obama should have been bolder. We aren’t the ex-community organizer sitting on the hot seat.

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