Obama’s Greatest Diplomatic Challenge

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           The policy report Engaging Iran: Lessons from the past addresses various obstacles that the Obama administration will have to face in implementing a policy of engagement with Iran. The report takes a specific look at the West’s policies in Iran, and more importantly, what aspects of these policies have limited their success. The range of issues addressed in the report is extensive, dealing with the weight of domestic politics, the impact of contradictory American foreign policy principles, as well as the political and economic interest that other countries in the West have with Iran. While the report has an expansive approach on the question of rapprochement with Iran, its objectives are limited. “[The] Papers are not intended as advice for Obama’s administration but to better understand the past so as to provide a basis for making better policy in the future”. This caveat accurately presents the reports findings. In comparison to other policy assessments by similar organizations[1], it does not produce specific policy recommendations for the Obama administration. As a result, while the report presents the evolution of American-Iranian relationships in a clear fashion, the different perspectives of each article are at times contradictory, in the sense that they prioritize the problems in previous approaches towards engagement differently. However, because these were not the objectives of the report, its findings must be commended on their ability to present the different reasons why engagement has failed, and the different issues the Obama administration will have to reflect upon in order to determine its foreign policy priorities with Iran.

Defining the Objectives of Rapprochement

In the most enlightening article in the report, Laipson highlights an important question – whether the U.S.’s engagement with Iran is a strategic goal or a means to achieve specific policy objectives, such as suspending its nuclear activities. Laipson also notes that while most diplomatic relationships are sustained on the basis of specific goals, in the case of the U.S.’s historically strained relations with Iran, engagement may become an important end in itself[2]. In addition, the report also does a skillful job in explaining to what extent the answer to that question should dictate the expectations the U.S. has of Iran. That is, how much of the new relationship should depend on America making the first gesture, with the goal of promoting confidence building, or alternatively whether it should depend on specific progress on the various fronts over which the two countries disagree, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal.




[1] Other policy reports on the prospects of an engagement with Iran such as the International Crisis Group’s Us-Iranian Engagement and the Council on Foreign Policy’s brief Time For a New Approach, have a narrower focus but promote specific policy recommendations.

[2] Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009., Pp. 19.

[1] Other policy reports on the prospects of an engagement with Iran such as the International Crisis Group’s Us-Iranian Engagement and the Council on Foreign Policy’s brief Time For a New Approach, have a narrower focus but promote specific policy recommendations.

[1] Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009., Pp. 19.

lessons from history. However, it does highlight the limits that such a methodology has for developing clear lessons. It demands a daily reassessment of the internal politics in Iran, and a weighing of how American capacity can exploit any openings on the Iranian front to develop a relationship based on broad goals or specific issues.

What is clear from the report however, and a message echoed by various publications dealing with the question of engaging Iran, is that there has not been an opportunity for a grand bargain to settle all of the issues that create a contentious relationship between Iran and the West. Furthermore, it is unlikely that such an opportunity will present itself in the future. Consequently, the report urges the administration to have at the same time a policy that is persistent and patient[1]. Persistent in its defense of American values, that is consistent with its overall diplomacy, and patient, understanding of the various factors that influence Iran’s approach to the West and the time it will take to significantly alter the relationship it has with Iran.

Knowing Iran and The Weight of domestic politics

The report highlights on various occasions[2] that the considerable ignorance of Iran and its internal workings limits the West’s understanding of its agenda. Apart from knowing that the regime wishes to stay in power, and that Iran is determined to remain a powerful force in the region, the U.S. does not know enough about Iranian expectations or its inner workings to develop a foreign policy agenda. However, the report agrees that despite not having any real relations with Iran since 1979, the U.S. should continue a process of engagement. Again the specifics of this policy recommendation elude the report, but it does present the options available in a clear manner. Kemp highlights that the agenda could focus on hard issues, specifically the nuclear program, or it could center on softer priorities that are shared by both Washington and Tehran, such as drug trafficking[3]. However, the efficiency of either approach is questionable, notes Singh, focusing on narrow objectives in the past has allowed Iran to avoid the consequences and sacrifices that a serious attempt at rapprochement would bring about. Furthermore, on the nuclear question, sidestepping this issue by focusing on other objectives may provide Iran with an opportunity to buy time and continue developing its nuclear arsenal, argues Kemp.

In addition, the report highlights that infighting and factionalism have had a significant impact on the prospects of U.S. policies of engagement with Iran. In the fall of 1979 for example, Iranian politics were dictated by a capacity to demonstrate radicalism, and disputes over authenticity of the Islamists and leftists over who was the authentic revolutionary. Because the title of revolutionary was practically interchangeable with anti-imperialism and anti- American ism, both took a hash stance against the U.S. and rendered any effort on the U.S.’s behalf completely ineffective. The report highlights that factionalism and infighting still apply to Iran’s decision making process. Although it is mainly the hard-liners that have held on to an anti-American stance, their weight in politics continues to influence Iranian foreign policy. The U.S. cannot wait for the regime to change, so it must deal with the obstacle that hardliners do not want to engage.




[1] See Dalton’s article “ Lessons from the EU-Iran Comprehensive Dialogue”. Pp 27-29.

[2] See Limbert “ Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5, Sazergara “The Importance of Iran’s Domestic Political Atmosphere” Pp. 6-7, and  Kemp’s “Talking to Tehran: Context and Process Matter Most” Pp. 32-33.

[3] Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging  Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009, Pp. 33.

[1] See Dalton’s article “ Lessons from the EU-Iran Comprehensive Dialogue”. Pp 27-29.

[1] See Limbert “ Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5, Sazergara “The Importance of Iran’s Domestic Political Atmosphere” Pp. 6-7, and  Kemp’s “Talking to Tehran: Context and Process Matter Most” Pp. 32-33.

[1] Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging  Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009, Pp. 33.

[1] Ibid, Pp. 6.

[1] See Laipson’s “ Engaging Iran: Strategic Goal or Means to an End?” Pp.18-19 and Limbert’s “Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5.

weight of the will of the Iranian people varies form article to article. In Sazegara’s analysis the fact Iranians were weary of American intention is sighted as the most important factor in hindering the relationship between Iran and the US[1]. Yet, other analysts have noted that Iranian sentiment towards the US has changed, and this newfound interest in the US and the values that it stands for should not be confused with the regime that actually rules Iran. While it is important to gauge the interest of the Iranian people in an effort to engage with the state itself, recent elections have demonstrated that there is a significant disconnect between the will of the Iranian people and the government’s politics both internally and abroad. Too close of a relationship with Iranian civil society may not prove helpful for the U.S. as this behaviour may be interpreted as a return to old practices of meddling in Iranian affairs. The Obama administration’s restrained approach towards the Iranian elections, best described as a wait-and-see, is indicative of the realization that the U.S. must develop a relationship with the politicians in power, who may or may not be the political figures it has the most in common with.

Sticking to American Principles

The U.S. has stood for the defense of certain fundamental international principles as the foundation of world order. According to Rostow and Sadjadpour, while the US has not had a perfect record in the defense of these principles, they continue to be an important aspect of America’s international appeal. Consequently, any time the U.S. has deviated from these practices, it has hurt the potential for engagement with Iran. Rostow cites in particular the Iran-Iraq war, and the failure of the US to recognize that Iran had a right to self-defense. While the value the U.S. attributes to liberal principles is unquestionably a central component of its foreign policy, how different administrations interpret what these principles are, how they should be defended and the weight they carry in relation to other priorities varies. Therefore, while it is important for the US to have a consistent foreign policy to suggest that the U.S. “be true to itself” is not a particularly clear lesson drawn from history. Although the different writers do highlight that engagement with Iran has been affected by a multiplicity of factors, it is unclear how American principles impact this rapprochement in relation to other variables analyzed. In fact, various articles highlight the fact that the U.S. at different points in its tense relations with Iran has been in a lose-lose situation, in which any choice it pursued was interpreted negatively by the Iranian government[2] given this context, the vague concept of American principles and their defense seems relatively less helpful than the other, more practical and specific, suggestions proposed by the report.

For the full report see http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/pubPDFs/PolicyFocus93.pdf

Footnotes :

[1] Other policy reports on the prospects of an engagement with Iran such as the International Crisis Group’s Us-Iranian Engagement and the Council on Foreign Policy’s brief Time For a New Approach, have a narrower focus but promote specific policy recommendations.

2 Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009., Pp. 19.

3 See Dalton’s article “ Lessons from the EU-Iran Comprehensive Dialogue”. Pp 27-29.

4 See Limbert “ Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5, Sazergara “The Importance of Iran’s Domestic Political Atmosphere” Pp. 6-7, and  Kemp’s “Talking to Tehran: Context and Process Matter Most” Pp. 32-33.

5 Clawson, P (Ed). Engaging  Iran: Lessons from the Past. The Washington Instutute for Near East Policy. Policy Focus No. 93. May 2009, Pp. 33.

6 Ibid, Pp. 6.

7 See Laipson’s “ Engaging Iran: Strategic Goal or Means to an End?” Pp.18-19 and Limbert’s “Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5.




[1] Ibid, Pp. 6.

[2] See Laipson’s “ Engaging Iran: Strategic Goal or Means to an End?” Pp.18-19 and Limbert’s “Riding the Tiger: The View from Tehran in 1979” Pp. 3-5.


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