WikiLeaks and Iran, Take 2: Former State Department Official Confirms Obama Was Never Serious about Engaging Iran

We were struck by a piece published by Reza Marashi — former State Department desk officer for Iran who now works as the National Iranian American Council’s research director.  For us, the most striking passage is the following:

It should now be clear that U.S. policy has never been a true engagement policy.  By definition, engagement entails a long-term approach that abandons “sticks” and reassures both sides that their respective fears are unfounded.  We [U.S. officials working on Iran policy] realized early on that the [Obama] administration was unlikely to adopt this approach.  Instead, we pursued a “carrot and stick” strategy similar to the Bush administration, utilizing positive and negative inducements to convince Iran that changing its behavior would be its most rewarding and least harmful decision.  The key difference between the Bush and Obama approach is an effort by the latter to fix tactical mistakes by the former.  By disavowing regime change, striking diplomatic quid pro quos with key allies, and dropping preconditions to diplomacy with Iran, Obama changed tactics, but maintained an objective similar to his predecessor — making Iran yield on the nuclear issue through pressure. . . .

Moreover, as the leaked cables show, the highest levels of the Obama administration never believed that diplomacy could succeed.  While this does not cheapen Obama’s Nowruz message and other groundbreaking facets of his initial outreach, it does raise three important questions:  How can U.S. policymakers give maximum effort to make diplomacy succeed if they admittedly never believed their efforts could work?  Why was Iran expected to accept negotiation terms that relinquished its greatest strategic asset (1200 kg of LEU) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return?  And what are the chances that Iran will take diplomacy seriously now that it knows the U.S. never really did?  The Obama administration presented a solid vision, but never truly pursued it.

This, of course, provides additional powerful and public confirmation — from inside the Obama Administration — for our argument, in a New York Times Op Ed published in May 2009, that the Obama Administration’s disingenuous approach to dealing with Iran had already betrayed the early promise of President Obama’s initial rhetoric about engagement.  In that article, we recounted how Dennis Ross had told us, before entering the Obama Administration, that he did not believe a U.S. strategy of “engagement with pressure” toward Iran would actually work to stimulate productive diplomacy, but would be necessary to lay the ground work for further sanctions and, eventually, military strikes against the Islamic Republic.

After we published this article, Dennis communicated with us indirectly that he was unhappy about our recounting of his views on Iran policy.  Subsequently, he had his then-assistant at the State Department Ray Takeyh offer the following on-the-record statement to Roger Cohen, who used it in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story published in July 2009: “The idea that [Ross is] just looking for engagement with Iran to tick some box before moving to harsh measures is just wrong and fraudulent.”

In light of the WikiLeaks cables and Mr. Marashi’s public confirmation that the Obama Administration was, in fact, pursuing engagement to pave the way for more coercive options, including expanded sanctions, we ask Ray Takeyh: who was perpetrating a fraud with regard to the underlying intent of the Administration’s Iran policy?  The question is about far more than Dennis Ross’ displeasure that we “outed” him as to his real agenda for “engaging” the Islamic Republic.  The case for going to war with Iraq was built on lies — lies perpetrated by Iraqi expatriates with their own political agendas, and taken into the policymaking process by ideologically-driven U.S. officials who set aside concern for both the truth and U.S. interests.  President Obama is responsible for allowing a reprise of the same, despicable pattern, this time with regard to Iran.

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 30 November 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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