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WikiLeaks and Iran, Take 1: Obama’s Legacy Will Be Change You Can’t Count On

November 29, 2010

We will be writing about the WikiLeaks documents and Iran throughout this week.  As we sort through the cables that are available so far, the first major point is that, as even the New York Times‘ quasi-neoconservative David Sanger and his colleagues noted in their first story on the documents, the Obama Administration gave up on serious engagement with Tehran early on — if it ever was truly serious about engagement at all.  As Sanger and his colleagues write:

When Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians.  But the cables show how Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses.  In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

To document this assessment, Sanger and his colleagues rely significantly on a “Secret” cable from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels in March 2009, describing a classified briefing that the Obama Administration provided for all European Union member states.  March 2009 — that’s less than two full months after President Obama took office and three months before the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election.  And, as this particular cable and others in the WikiLeaks collection indicate, the Administration was at that point already tanking on serious engagement with Tehran.  Whatever engagement that the Administration undertook would be as Dennis Ross and some others wanted it to be — a ploy, going through the motions to lay the groundwork for more sanctions and, down the road, even military strikes.

Of course, that is precisely what we wrote in our May 24, 2009 Op Ed in the New York Times, “Have We Already Lost Iran?”:

President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed. . . .  This judgment may seem both premature and overly severe.  We do not make it happily. . . .

President Obama has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran.  On the personnel front, the problem begins at the top, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Clinton ran well to the right of Mr. Obama on Iran, even saying she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.  Since becoming secretary of state, Clinton has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for “crippling” multilateral sanctions against Iran. . . .

Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department.  Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran.  He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely.  Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail?  Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, “an offer we can’t accept,” simply to gain international support for coercive action.

At the time we published this Op Ed, we were excoriated by many proponents of a diplomatic approach to Iran for writing such “premature” and unduly “harsh” criticism of a new administration headed by a President who was so obviously committed to engagement with the Islamic Republic.  The leaked documents confirm that our criticism of the Obama Administration was in no way premature and, if harsh, was deservedly so.

President Obama has never been willing to back up his professed interest in diplomacy with expenditures of political capital, and his Administration has never been serious about engagement.  There is now a serious risk that Obama’s major policy achievement in this area will be to give engagement a bad name, discrediting the whole idea of using diplomacy to realign U.S.-Iranian relations in a strategically consequential way.  That’s something which even the George W. Bush Administration could not accomplish.

Some of our Iranian colleagues are now telling us that more and more people in Iranian foreign policy circles are giving up on President Obama as a potential agent of change in U.S.-Iranian relations.  When we were at the University of Tehran earlier this year, we met bright students who had read and digested both of Obama’s autobiographical books.  For Iranian elites now to be giving up on him and his foreign policy is another uniquely dubious achievement for Obama.

Aside from the WikiLeaks story, the other major Iran-related item in the news today was the bomb attacks in Tehran that killed an Iranian nuclear scientist and seriously wounded another (the wife of one of the scientists was also wounded).  When another Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in a bomb attack in Tehran in January of this year, many pro-Green Movement commentators advanced completely unsubstantiated assertions that the Iranian government had organized the attack because of what some claimed were the victim’s pro-Mousavi sympathies.  Now, the idea that the Iranian government is assassinating its own scientists seems increasingly preposterous.  As we noted in May 2009,

the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.  Under these circumstances, the Iranian government — regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12 — will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile. . . .  Ayatollah Khamenei’s charge that “money, arms and organizations are being used by the Americans directly across our western border to fight the Islamic Republic’s system” reflects legitimate concern about American intentions.

It is increasingly well-documented that both the United States and Israel are trying to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through covert initiatives.  We hope, as Americans, that our own government’s involvement in such activities does not extend to organizing or supporting the assassination of Iranian scientists (though we would note that this is something that neoconservatives like Reuel Marc Gerecht, among others, has publicly recommended); as we understand it, this would be a violation of U.S. law.  Perhaps it is the handiwork of an American ally that is less constrained when it comes to “targeted killings.”  But as long as the United States continues to fund and administer covert operations intended to destabilize the Islamic Republic, the risks that U.S. government agencies will be complicit in actions that would never pass serious legal scrutiny (or make sense as effective policy) are dangerously high.


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.  She is also 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 29 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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