One of President Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives was to open direct negotiations with the government of Iran. His action reverses the policy of every U.S. President since the seizure of American hostages by Iranian militants in 1979.
Americans under age 30 probably do not remember that those 52 American hostages were held for 444 days, not by radical students, but by the Iranian Revolutionary Council — with the blessing of the Iranian Islamist government. The hostages were released the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated President.
So, as they say, the American people have “a history” with the radical mullahs of Iran, who still refer to the United States as the “Great Satan.“ This is not to say that relations with Iran can’t be improved, but that that improvement must be based on concrete changes in behavior.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama agreed on very few things, but one of them was this: An Iran with nuclear weapons is not a prospect either the United States or Iran’s neighbors can view with equanimity. Iran continues to defy United Nations resolutions regarding its uranium enrichment activities and continues its crash program to develop nuclear weapons.
Thus, two immediate questions are raised by Obama’s preemptive offer of an olive branch to Iran: What are his goals for Iran, and what concessions is he prepared to make to obtain those goals? Diplomacy, after all, is simply the international version of old-fashioned horse-trading, but with less tangible bargaining chips and more long-range consequences.
Evades Nuclear Question
A few days ago Obama gave his first foreign press television interview to Al-Arabiya, the second most popular television network in the Arab world. The Al-Arabiya anchor asked him a direct question: “Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?”
Obama had stated many times in the 2008 presidential campaign that “the world cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons.” But he danced around the question when posed by Al-Arabiya and never answered it. Instead he retreated to a different campaign promise, to “reinvigorate” American diplomacy. “You know, I said in the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.”
Who can argue against diplomacy? Never mind that President Bush and the European Union have engaged in endless talks with Iran on the topic of its nuclear program over the past decade. Obama can claim that he is rediscovering and reinvigorating diplomacy, but the important questions is: What are the strategic assessments and goals underlying the diplomacy? Ronald Reagan’s maxim was, “trust, but verify.” Can we expect any verification of changes in the Iranian nuclear program?
There is a clue to Obama’s assessment and expectations of Iran in his Al-Arabiya interview. Continuing in his answer to the question about tolerating a nuclear Iran, Obama said:
“Iran has acted in ways not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: Their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon … their support for terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been too helpful…. If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us.”
Earlier in the interview, Obama told the Arab world that “the language we use is important.” So, it may be significant that Obama refers to Iran’s support for terrorist organizations as a thing in the past. Really? Iran supported terrorist organizations only in the past? Iran is today providing funds for weapons to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, among other terrorist groups around the world. You were caught cheating at cards yesterday, but today we trust you?
By announcing the opening of direct negotiations with Iran, Obama has already given the radical mullahs of Iran a very attractive plum, something not offered by five previous Presidents, and they got it from Obama without ever giving up one single concession. This does not bode well for the future of his “new diplomacy.”
A key test for Obama’s new Iran policy and for his new team at the State Department will be his treatment of the Iranian patriotic opposition, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, or PMOI. The U.S. State Department continues to list the PMOI as a terrorist group even though that classification has now been changed by the government of Great Britain and the European Union. The U.S. State Department should follow suit and recognize the PMOI as a valuable ally in the struggle for regime change in Iran.
The PMOI is opposed to the Islamist regime in Tehran and is committed to restoring full democracy in Iran. It has enjoyed tacit U.S. military and diplomatic support in the form of a camp accommodating about 3,000 Iranian exiles in Southeast Iraq near Iran’s border, Camp Asharf. The State Department may be tempted to offer up Camp Asharf as a negotiating concession in talks with the Iranian government. If that happens, it will signal the abandonment of regime change as a goal of U.S. policy and a betrayal of true Iranian patriots.
Obama and his advisors are riding high on the promise of diplomacy, but do they understand the lessons of history? Diplomacy is impotent unless backed up by military strength and guided by a realistic appraisal of your enemy’s goals and interests. If Obama truly believes that Iran‘s moral compass is aimed at the “peace and prosperity of the region,” as he said in the Al-Arabiya interview, he is naïve in the extreme. Those are the goals of Western democracies, not the goals of an Islamist jihad.
Let us hope that the Iranian patriots in Camp Asharf are not among the first victims of Obama’s “idealism.”