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Obama on the Middle East: Sticking with a Failed Script

May 18, 2011

In an effort to define the dominant narrative about the ongoing Arab awakening and America’s role in the Middle East, President Obama will give what the White House is billing as a major address on Middle East policy.  However eloquently delivered, the address will not be able to overcome or compensate for Obama’s profound lack of a strategic vision that could actually shape a more effective U.S. posture toward this critical region.

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Obama will speak at a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East continues to decline and American policy is seen as less and less effective.  Pew Research Poll released this week a poll of key Middle East populations conducted in late March and early April — in other words, after all of the major elements of the Arab awakening to date (e.g., changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya, Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and the outbreak of unrest in Syria) were in play.  Contrary to conventional wisdom in the Obama Administration and their echo chambers around Washington that the Arab Awakening will surely work to U.S. advantage, the poll shows continued anger and resentment over U.S. policy and toward President Obama.

The President and his senior advisers are determined to depict what is happening in the Middle East today as a popular repudiation of both Usama Bin Ladin and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Besides overlooking the profound antagonism between Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic Republic, this approach is fundamentally at odds with on-the-ground reality in the region and is, therefore, likely to fall flat as a rhetorical strategy.

We have pointed out before, and it remains true, that those Middle Eastern regimes that have been overthrown or are at serious risk of being overthrown (at least without Saudi military intervention) have been challenged not because they were sympathetic to either bin Ladin (none were) or Iran.  They have been challenged because their own people saw them as not only corrupt and unresponsive, but as bought-and-paid-for vessels for U.S. policies requiring them to compromise their nations’ sovereignty and independence and to act against the interests and preferences of their peoples.

Furthermore, Obama and his administration are heading down the same dead-end road as their recent predecessors in focusing on U.S.-sponsored economic development as the solution to many of the region’s most pressing problems.  This tactic has been deployed for years to assuage Palestinian despair over life under open-ended, U.S.-facilitated occupation and “explain away” the fundamentally political roots of anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. violence in the region.  It has not worked in the past; it will not work now.

At a time when the United States desperately needs to be rethinking its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East — starting with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and moving on to Hamas and Hezbollah — Obama will instead double down on the failed approaches of the past.  Obama will say he is happy for the United States to engage with Islamist movements — so long as those movements surrender in advance on all of their major points of difference with the United States and Israel, abandon even the idea that armed resistance to occupation might be legitimate, and forsake everything that makes them distinctive as political actors.

If these groups were to do as Obama “asks”, what future relevance could they possibly have?  All Obama will accomplish with this point is to perpetuate and deepen America’s self-imposed isolation from some of the most vital political forces shaping real-life outcomes across the Middle East.

These elements of Obama’s Middle East “strategy” are all set against a backdrop of intensifying American concern about rising Iranian influence.  Obama will, no doubt, try to tell the world that this is not so — that it is the Islamic Republic, not the United States, whose interests and strategic position are threatened by unfolding events in the region.  On this point, it is worth examining part of a speech that President Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, gave at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy even last week.  We append below the portion of Donilon’s remarks dealing with Iran:

President Obama has long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state.  That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  From his first days in office, he has made clear to Iran that it has a choice: it can act to restore the confidence of the international community in the purposes of its nuclear program by fully complying with the IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions, or it can continue to shirk its international obligations, which will only increase its isolation and the consequences for the regime.  There is no escaping or evading that choice.  Already, Iran is facing sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before.  As a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; or to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure.  And it has found in that critical sector alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued.  Other sectors are clearly being affected as well.  Leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran — and are choosing to no longer do so.  These are companies you’ve heard of: Shell, Toyota, Kia, Repsol, Deutsche Bank, UBS, and Credit Suisse, to name just a few.

The impact is real.

Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure.  As the President has said: “Iran can prove that its intentions are peaceful.  It can meet its obligations under the NPT and achieve the security and prosperity worthy of a great nation.  It can have confidence in the Iranian people and allow their rights to flourish.  For Iranians are heirs to a remarkable history.”

Like all NPT Parties, Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy.  But it also has a responsibility to fulfill its obligations.  There is no alternative to doing so.  That is why — even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East — we remain focused on ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

But as you all well know, the Iranian regime’s nuclear program is part of a larger pattern of destabilizing activities throughout the region: In Iraq — where, as our former commander General Odierno said last summer, “They continue to be involved in violence specifically directed at U.S. forces”; in Syria, where it has helped the Asad regime suppress pro-democracy demonstrations; and in Lebanon, where it continues to arm Hizballah.

So make no mistake, we have no illusions about the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions.  We know that they will try to exploit this period of tumult and will remain vigilant.  But we must also remember that Iran has many weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Iran’s model, like al-Qaeda’s, lacks a vision relevant to our times.  It is a model that could not be more out of step with the sentiments of the Arab Spring.  This model has the following characteristics:

First: A corrupt, mismanaged and isolated economy that offers the younger generation little hope for a better future.  It is an economy increasingly working for the security services like the IRGC and elites, and not for the people of Iran.

Second: The denial of the basic human rights of freedom of expression — the very liberties people across the Middle East are prepared to risk their lives to claim.

Third: A political leadership focused on preserving its reign at all costs, including by unleashing violence against its own citizens, rather than enabling its citizens to flourish.

Fourth: The pursuit of policies that have worked to make a great civilization and people an isolated state, increasingly unable to carry on basic interactions with the rest of the world.

So it’s no surprise, then, that Iran’s world view bears little or no resemblance to the movements afoot in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, Benghazi, Deraa.

Iranian leaders’ attempts to declare themselves the inspiration for these demonstrators are belied by their clear hypocrisy: demanding justice for others while crushing their own people’s demands.

Our observation is that since the elections in 2009, the regime has been heavily focused internally — on silencing dissent and preserving itself.  And as you might expect, we now see fissures developing among the ruling class — a dispute that has nothing to do with meeting the needs and aspirations of the Iranian people.  It also reflects a fundamental question: whether Iran has the confidence to engage with the outside world — a prospect that has been offered and that is in the overwhelming interest of its people.  As the President has said to Iran’s leaders:  “We know what you’re against, now tell us what you’re for.”

Externally, Iran’s destabilizing activities are backfiring by uniting its neighbors in the Gulf against their activities — this was something I heard often when I visited the Gulf last month.

This is something Arab leaders are saying not just in private but in public as well.  The Gulf Cooperation Council recently said it was “deeply worried about continuing Iranian meddling” and accused Tehran of fueling sectarianism.

I want to be clear: The door to diplomacy remains open to Iran.  But that diplomacy must be meaningful and not a tactical attempt to ward off further sanctions.  These choices remain available to the Iranian government.  In the meantime, America and our partners will keep the pressure on by continuing our current sanctions efforts and seeking new lines of activity to target. . . .

This is, in our view, the most dangerously misguided aspect of Obama’s approach to the Middle East.  Increasingly, the region’s major powers — not just Iran, but also Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — are charting their own courses, and viewing the United States as poorly intentioned, incompetent, and/or progressively less relevant to their interests.  President Obama will try to cast this as a moment of redemption for U.S. strategy, but, in fact, this is a moment of crisis for an America that remains intent on denying regional reality.


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 18 May 2011 under a Creative Commons license.




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