Shadow Government

Af-Pak is important, but not as much as Iran

By Michael Singh With the rollout of the Af-Pak policy review in the rearview mirror, the Obama administration’s policy machinery moves from a war it wishes to conclude successfully in Afghanistan to one that it wishes to avoid in Iran. As important as Afghanistan and Pakistan are to U.S. national security, the outcome of President Obama’s ...

By Michael Singh

With the rollout of the Af-Pak policy review in the rearview mirror, the Obama administration’s policy machinery moves from a war it wishes to conclude successfully in Afghanistan to one that it wishes to avoid in Iran. As important as Afghanistan and Pakistan are to U.S. national security, the outcome of President Obama’s Iran policy review is likely to be even more consequential. Iran is inextricably linked to a spectrum of security challenges facing the United States and our allies, through its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, Shia militants in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas in the Levant, and, most urgently, its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

While we must await the outcome of the policy review for a full understanding of the new administration’s approach to Iran, early signals indicate a heavy focus on unconditional dialogue with the Iranian regime. Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran was not a first — President Bush gave similar addresses — but it differed markedly from Bush’s messages in rhetoric and substance. Obama, for example, refrained from any mention of human rights, addressed himself directly to the regime’s leaders, and strongly hinted at a change in U.S. policy toward Iran. The other major U.S. initiative with respect to Iran is the upcoming international conference on Afghanistan, at which the administration hopes to engage with Iran.

Despite his assertions during the 2008 presidential campaign that tougher economic sanctions on Iran were needed, the White House has been notably quiet on this topic so far. The only such talk at the moment has been coming from U.S. allies, such as the UK and France, and from Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who (influenced by decades of dealing with the Iranian challenge, no doubt) suggested that ultimately pressure is more important than talk when it comes to changing Iran’s behavior (a notion also supported by Iran envoy Dennis Ross in writings preceding his appointment).  

Obama is optimistic that his new approach to Iran will succeed. In a news conference following his Nowruz message, he said that he expects "steady progress" in U.S. relations with Iran. This prediction would be modest in other contexts, but in the context of three decades of virtually frozen relations with Iran, it is bold indeed. However, if Obama is to achieve the progress for which he hopes, he must be cognizant of the risks of an overemphasis on engagement in Iran policy. 

The first is the risk of solipsism — that is, the belief that adjustments to U.S. behavior are the key to inducing changes by Iran. This was the Clinton administration’s mistake, which made a series of unilateral concessions after the election of the relatively moderate Iranian president Khatami, culminating in Secretary Madeleine Albright’s "apology" to Iran, all to no avail. Iranian parliament speaker, hardliner Ali Larijani, noted in rejecting Obama’s message that the U.S.-Iran dispute is not an "emotional issue" that can be solved with "fine words." This reaction merits attention from all those who consider the chief obstacle to U.S.-Iran relation to be historical grievances rather than conflicting interests and objectives.

The second risk is that, in pursuing dialogue with the Iranian regime without increasing pressure on it at the same time, it will become more difficult to resolve the nuclear issue, not less. This stems from two factors: First, the Iranians may see Obama’s message as a sign of a weakening in the U.S. position, and thereby raise the price of rapprochement and extend the duration of any negotiating process.  Second, by offering Iran the chance to negotiate piecemeal on issues such as Afghanistan, rather than being forced to consider a wholesale change in its role and responsibilities in the international community, the Iranian regime can achieve limited objectives without conceding anything on other matters of importance to the United States and our allies. In other words, Iran’s leaders can have their cake and eat it too.

It is undoubtedly vital that the door remain open to U.S.-Iran dialogue, lest the confrontation between Washington and Tehran become an expressway to conflict with no off-ramps. But the pursuit of dialogue must be tempered with realism: Every U.S. administration since 1979 has sought to engage Iran, with little to show for it. I, for one, hope that Iran’s leaders are wise enough to take up Obama on his invitation to negotiate. But just as earnestly, I hope that the Obama administration has a plan to act if they do not.

Michael Singh is managing director at the Washington Institute. He was senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from from 2005 to 2008. @MichaelSinghDC
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