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Iran and Obama’s State of the Union Address: Back to the Future?

In a State of the Union address that devoted less time or attention to foreign policy than any recent counterpart, President Obama provided disturbing evidence as to the ongoing strategic regression of his administration’s Iran policy.

Obama has moved, during just one year in office, from relatively forward-leaning expressions of interest in engaging Iran on the basis of “mutual interests” and in an atmosphere of “mutual respect” to rhetoric reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s description of an “axis of evil” (North Korea, Saddam Husayn’s Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran) in his 2002 State of the Union address.  Last night, Obama equated Iran’s nuclear activities with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — even though there is no doubt that North Korea has built nuclear weapons and no evidence that the Islamic Republic has done so or even tried to do so.  (For good measure, the President effectively put the status of Iranian women in the same category as that of their Afghan sisters.  While one can take issue with restrictions still in place on Iranian women, the educational, professional, and social standing of women in the Islamic Republic is among the highest in the greater Middle East and clearly superior to the status of women in Afghanistan.)

There was no mention of engaging Tehran in last night’s speech.  Instead, the emphasis — as during George W. Bush’s administration — was on isolating and punishing Iran.  With regard to the nuclear issue, in particular, Obama said that “as Iran’s leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences.”  (Departing from his prepared text at this point in the speech, the President added starkly: “That is a promise.”)

To the extent that there is room left in Obama’s Iran policy for diplomacy, it is diplomacy of the sort pursued by the George W. Bush administration during its second term in office — engagement with America’s regional and international allies, to marshal support for intensified multilateral pressure on Iran, not engagement with the Islamic Republic with the aim of resolving differences and realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.  One could accurately characterize this as diplomacy about Iran, rather than diplomacy with Iran.  It certainly does not amount to “change we can believe in.”

Obama’s retreat from any serious effort to develop a genuine strategy for engaging Tehran is matched by the absence of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the array of challenges confronting the United States in the broader Middle East.  The President said, literally, nothing — not a word — about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Arab-Israeli peacemaking.  His remarks on Iraq and Afghanistan focused on how U.S. military involvement in these conflicts is coming to an end.  It would seem that, under President Obama, America’s “grand strategy” for the Middle East has been reduced to killing as many jihadist terrorists as possible.

The lack of a comprehensive strategy for the broader Middle East has important implications for the Obama administration’s approach to Iran.  In his speech last night, President Obama evinced no recognition that a more constructive relationship with Tehran is essential for the United States to achieve its high-priority policy objectives in the region.  There was certainly no sign of interest in engaging the Islamic Republic regarding post-conflict stabilization in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Iranian officials and analysts in Tehran have already begun to suggest that, if the United States moves ahead with additional sanctions or other coercive measures, Tehran might feel compelled to reduce its cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Indeed, Iran declined to attend an international conference on Afghanistan in London this week.  According to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Iran opted not to take part because

the approach of the conference is in line with increasing military action, following double standards on [fighting] terrorism, overlooking the roots of problems and not using regional potentialities in solving the problems in Afghanistan (emphasis added). 

The Obama Administration’s approach could well end up increasing the risks of proxy conflicts between the United States and the Islamic Republic in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Besides President Obama’s rhetoric, we observed what we thought was another important indicator of the strategic drift — and, consequently, the poor prospects of success — in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not attend last night’s State of the Union address.  To be fair, she is in London attending the aforementioned conference on Afghanistan and a similar meeting on Yemen, so she had an acceptable excuse.  But, on the same day that President Obama would deliver his State of the Union speech, Secretary Clinton gave an interview to PBS in which she indicated that she did not anticipate staying on as America’s chief diplomat in an Obama second term.  The Secretary professed to be worn out by the rigorous demands of her job.  We do not doubt that Secretary Clinton is working hard.  But we took her statements as a tacit vote of no confidence in the direction of American foreign policy under President Obama.  A year in, there have been no foreign policy successes of note.  The prospects for major achievements over the next 2-3 years are not good.  Most likely, what Secretary Clinton can look forward to during the balance of her tenure is a hard and unrewarding slog.  From that vantage, a return to private life might not look so bad.

Other harbingers about the direction of America’s Iran policy are not good.  The Israel Project — which describes itself as an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom, and peace . . . to “help protect Israel, reduce anti-Semitism and increase pride in Israel” — announced earlier this week that it had purchased air time on CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for an extensive ad campaign, starting on the day of President Obama’s State of the Union address and continuing for three days thereafter.  This campaign is intended to highlight the Iranian “threat” to Israel — and, by extension, to the United States.  (To see the signature ad in the campaign, click here.)  The text of the ad script reads, in part

Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.  Since 2005, Israel has been targeted by 8,000 rocket and missile attacks from HAMAS and Hezbollah.  Iran has helped fund, train, and arm these terrorist groups.  A nuclear Iran is a threat to peace, emboldens extremists . . . and could give nuclear materials to terrorists with the ability to strike — anywhere.

This, of course, harkens back to the same kinds of advertising and public “education” that helped to pave the way for the American invasion of Iraq.  And, in a manner reminiscent of the run-up to congressional action on the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia is now scheduled to hold a hearing next week on what the United States can do to assist the opposition in Iran.

We always knew that President Obama would have to be prepared to fight in order to take America’s Iran policy in a new direction that truly served American interests and promoted regional stability.  We were never sure he was really up to this fight.  But, it is truly disappointing to see how rapidly he is pre-emptively surrendering to the other side.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 28 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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