There is a group of people in Washington who are angry that President Barack Obama might stand firm in his difficult negotiations. And there is a group of people in Washington who are angry that Obama might not stand firm in his difficult negotiations.
So far as I can tell, these two groups are the same people. What varies is the target of the negotiations, for Obama is in two very challenging sets of negotiations. One involves congressional Republicans and the debt ceiling, the government shutdown, and the troubled health-care reforms. The other involves the Iranian government and the Iranians' nuclear ambitions and support for global terrorism.
I haven't done an exhaustive study, but I have noticed a pattern: People who want Obama to standing firm when negotiating with Republicans hope he will be a more flexible negotiating partner with the Iranians, and vice versa.
The vituperative rhetoric directed at congressional Republicans by Obama and his allies makes the comparison with the Iranian nuclear negotiations an obvious one. But the comparisons extend beyond the name-calling. Consider these parallels across the 2x2 negotiation sets, Obama-Republicans and Obama-Iranians:
What I find most interesting about this thought exercise is the high correlation of contrasting views, as well as the associated emotional passion. Obama supporters who would be angry if he showed any sign of flexibility with respect to Republicans would be angry if he approached Iranians without that same kind of flexibility. Republican backers who would be angry if the president showed that flexibility with Iranians are angry that he is not (so far) showing that flexibility with them. (In fact, Republicans appear to be rather hoping that Obama will negotiate with them the way they say he negotiated with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Syria's Bashar al-Assad: make empty threats and then secure a deal by dropping key demands.)
Ultimately, the biggest common denominator across the two sets of negotiations is the central role played by Obama himself. While he must lead a coalition and factor in the views of his advisors and partners, at the end of the day it is Obama who will determine what deal he will strike with Republicans and what deal he will strike with Iranians.
It is Obama who has decided so far to reject the myriad offers from Republicans and live with the consequences of the government shutdown and default risk. And it is Obama who will have to decide whether the "best" offer from Iranians on the nuclear issue is good enough for him to accept. In both cases, then, it will be Obama who will have the last move, and thus it will be Obama who will determine the outcome.
Will he end both negotiations in the same way?
Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Costly U.S. military occupations that go poorly can have the unintended side effect of bolstering the al Qaeda threat. That is a lesson of the Iraq war. But we are learning that noninterventions (Syria) and hyper-light-footprint interventions (Libya) can also bolster al Qaeda. And while it is too soon for a final judgment, since all are still works in progress (or perhaps dysfunctions in regress), it may be that on the narrow question of which approach sets back al Qaeda the most, the correct answer would surprise critics of the American military: Al Qaeda may well have been hurt far more by what the United States did in Iraq than by what the United States has not done in Syria, or barely done in Libya.
The devolution of the Iraq war from the rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein into the long, hard slog of the occupation and counterinsurgency proved to be a temporary bonanza for al Qaeda. The Iraq war became a rallying cry, and would-be terrorists flocked to Iraq in order to kill Americans, just as a generation earlier they had flocked to Afghanistan to kill Soviets. The Iraqi franchise of the terrorist network, al Qaeda in Iraq, benefited from the influx and, for a time, threatened to be the "stronger horse" that Osama bin Laden had hoped al Qaeda would be. Many critics pointed out the tragic irony that a war that George W. Bush's administration launched partly in the hopes of weakening al Qaeda by eliminating one potential source of weapons of mass destruction would actually have the opposite effect. In fact, if the United States could have been driven from Iraq in defeat, the war might actually have had the result of culminating bin Laden's original strategy for 9/11: a spectacular defeat of the United States that would expose it in the eyes of Muslim communities as a "paper tiger," forcing it to retreat from the region in disgrace and thus leaving America's partners at the mercy of the rising al Qaeda "stronger horse."
That arguably was the trajectory the Iraq war was on in 2006 and, but for Bush's surge, might have been the result. One of the ironies of history is that the U.S. critics of the Iraq war might have been able to prove themselves right if they had succeeded in thwarting the surge, as they tried to do in 2007.
However, as we now know, the critics were unable to stop Bush's surge. It was implemented and it reversed the trajectory, and by 2009, al Qaeda in Iraq was strategically spent. Iraq was no longer the rallying cry, and the safe havens were shut down. (To be sure, the al Qaeda network in Iraq has shown signs of reviving in recent years due to bad decisions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But the recent erosion in Iraq owes more to U.S. noninterference than it does to interference.)
Which brings us to the examples of Syria and Libya. The situations there are very bleak. U.S. officials now believe Syria has become the global focal point for the war on terror. Would-be terrorists are flocking to Syria as they once flocked to Iraq, and they are finding safe havens for what I call the "weaponization of resentment" -- turning individuals with an ideology of political grievance into militant terrorists. Syria now looks to be facing the same worst-case scenario we faced in Iraq: devolution into distinct enclaves, some of which will be controlled by the most radical elements of the al Qaeda network. We will never know for certain whether another policy would have avoided this -- perhaps more muscular support for moderate rebels earlier, as several of Barack Obama's advisors wanted but the president vetoed. But we do know that this is the fruit of the policy choices we and others have taken.
In Libya, the United States tried something in between the inaction of Syria and the costly occupation of Iraq. There, too, the results look bleak. Ever since the terrorist attack against America's Benghazi compound last year, it has been obvious that the security situation in Libya has deteriorated sharply from the early promising signs of late fall of 2011. This Saturday's raid has drawn attention to this unraveling, leading some to speculate that Libya is on the brink of collapse. The loosely controlled weapons arsenals in Libya are already fueling conflict throughout the region and post-Qaddafi Libya may be a net exporter of instability.
We learned in Iraq that intervention can lead to occupation and many unintended consequences that cost far more than what proponents of the policy expected. But we also learned that seeing that policy through to a successful conclusion may achieve markedly better outcomes vis-à-vis the terrorist network than are otherwise available after the proverbial Rubicon has been crossed.
We are learning in Syria and Libya that policies of nonintervention (refusing to cross the Rubicon) and halfhearted intervention (leading from behind) seem cheaper in the short run but may prove to be quite costly in the long run. Indeed, in the worst case, al Qaeda could regain in Syria and Libya what it lost in Iraq.
Photo: ABO SHUJA/AFP/Getty Images
"So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only
thing we have to fear is fear itself."
--President Franklin D. Roosevelt, inaugural address, March 4, 1933
Since FDR, there has been a grand tradition in the United States to assess the progress of American presidents by what they accomplished during their first 100 says in office. Like FDR, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani also faced humongous economic problems upon assuming his presidency on Aug. 4, 2013.
Rouhani promised measures to tackle Iran's economic problems in fewer than 100 days. "We pledge to the people that in the first 100 days ...we will take the necessary and urgent actions with regard to the economy and inform the people of the result," said Rouhani in Tehran during the third week of August.
To achieve his economic goals, Rouhani needs to decrease external pressures on Iran, such as by reducing the effects of sanctions, which in turn requires a deal with the major powers on Iran's nuclear file. Just like Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini drank from the "poison chalice" to cut a deal with the despised Saddam Hussein of Iraq and end the Iran-Iraq War, so Rouhani thinks the Islamic Republic of Iran should make temporary compromises to preserve survival of the clerical regime.
By engaging in a charm offensive at the United Nations, Rouhani created a media circus when he addressed the General Assembly. And by accepting a telephone call from U.S. President Barack Obama en route back to Tehran, Rouhani reinforced the idea that Iran is open to making compromises necessary for an end to sanctions.
But just as Winston Churchill said, "I have not become the king's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," Rouhani did not become president to deal away Tehran's nuclear assets. Change in Rouhani's tone may not foreshadow a change in Iran's actions to become a nuclear-arms-capable state.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pushed back against Rouhani's charm offensive, saying, "Some of what occurred in the New York trip was not proper." He also said, "The U.S. government is not trustworthy, is self-important, and breaks its promises." The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is not thrilled about making any temporary compromises with Washington, prompting Rouhani to suggest that the IRGC stay out of the political arena.
Obama is having a difficult time getting Republicans to end the shutdown of the U.S. government and agree to an increase in the debt limit. He would have even more difficulty gaining the bipartisan support on Capitol Hill necessary for sanctions relief for Iran without major concessions by Tehran on the nuclear issue.
Regionally, the Middle East offers a ripe arena that fuels media expectation of a nuclear deal for sanctions relief. Iran is Syria's main pipeline of arms and military reinforcements in the civil war. For Obama to achieve his objective of ousting Bashar al-Assad's regime without an Islamist takeover of Syria, Rouhani may believe Obama would be willing to accept less in the nuclear talks, for regime change in Damascus.
The possibility of a new alignment of Tehran and Washington not only encourages Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage in a diplomatic offensive against Rouhani but also upsets Sunni Arab Gulf state leaders who share Israel's alarm at Obama's outreach toward Shiite Iran, whether about Syria or in the nuclear talks.
And Sen. John McCain questioned whether the Obama administration is too trusting of Rouhani in nuclear talks in Geneva scheduled for mid-October. Reports circulate that Tehran is behind Baghdad's seizure of Iranian dissidents -- members of the People's Mojahedin of Iran -- and their possible forcible extradition to Iran. Such reports prompt pushback from Congress. Hence, there is too little support on the Hill for a reduction of sanctions for a doubtful deal.
The bottom line: It appears that Rouhani will have only made progress with the press in attaining his main goal during his first 100 days. Sanctions relief is not feasible in his first term unless he closes the gap between charm and substance, which is doubtful even if he wanted to do so.
Raymond Tanter served on the National Security Council staff in Ronald Reagan's administration and is professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.
Photo: EPA/JASON SZENES
In an Oct. 3 op-ed in the New York Times, Vali Nasr asserts that Iran is approaching the nuclear negotiations slated to resume Oct. 15 from a position of strength and that American ambitions should therefore be modest. He suggests limited sanctions relief in exchange for "concrete steps to slow down Iran's nuclear program and open it to international scrutiny." Nasr's prescription, however, would provide neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor Iranian President Hasan Rouhani with what they need.
Iran is not riding nearly as high as Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, suggests, but is in fact under tremendous economic, political, and military pressure. The charming self-assurance projected by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif masks a desperate need to make a deal with the United States.
As much as if not more than other Middle Eastern countries, Iran's security has been threatened by recent events in the region. The Syrian regime is Iran's main ally and conduit for projecting power; it may have been granted a reprieve from American attack, but it is by no means secure. And Syria is just one part of a broader, increasingly sectarian regional struggle that has dented the once-high popular prestige of Iran and its proxies.
Furthermore, U.S. military credibility may be at low ebb, but Iran cannot discount U.S. and Israeli military threats. An attack by either would not only set back Iran's nuclear efforts, but would expose the weakness of its military and the hollowness of its bombastic rhetoric.
Economically, Iran is suffering mightily. Iran's oil revenues have dropped from $8 billion monthly in 2011 to just $3.4 billion today, much of which cannot be repatriated due to sanctions that require Iran's customers to pay in local currency. Sanctions have also isolated Iran from the international financial system, contributing to high unemployment and inflation, stagnant economic growth, and a plummeting currency.
These pains come in the wake of Iran's widespread 2009 political unrest, which was followed by the brutal suppression of dissidents and the marginalization of reformist politicians and even pragmatic conservatives. The regime's repression was effective but had the effect of uniting a coalition of otherwise disparate political forces in opposition to hard-liners dominating the regime.
Rouhani's election in June was a result of (or at least the supreme leader's response to) these dynamics, but was not itself a solution to Iran's domestic problems. In voting for Rouhani, the Iranian people overwhelmingly endorsed the platform of social and economic change on which he campaigned. But to deliver on his promises, Rouhani needs not merely the lifting of one or two sanctions, but broad relief from them. And thus, he needs our help.
Iran's predicament provides Obama with both opportunity and leverage, neither of which should be squandered. But Rouhani will surely seek to alleviate Iran's suffering at the minimum price to its nuclear options, offering transparency and confidence-building rather than far-reaching limits on Iran's nuclear activities. The United States is susceptible to such arguments, as Washington wants not just to reach a nuclear agreement but to ease hostilities with Iran, and it is worried that the chance to do so may be fleeting.
But a limited nuclear agreement that leaves Iranian capabilities in place, even if subject to enhanced inspections, will not build confidence or stability. Inspections will raise tensions, not lower them, when Iran inevitably objects to inspectors' desire for access to sensitive military sites or denies activities for which the United States has evidence, such as Iran's weaponization work. Similar efforts with North Korea and Iraq in the 1990s and with Iran in the early 2000s eroded, rather than built, trust. And even if the United States chooses to trust Iran, its allies will not. Instead they will hedge their bets by matching the capabilities permitted to Tehran.
Furthermore, an agreement that leaves Iran's nuclear fuel fabrication capabilities and weaponization research program in place will permit Tehran in the future -- once economic and military pressures are safely relieved -- to expel inspectors and resume its march toward nuclear weapons, as North Korea did in the early 2000s.
Avoiding this risk and opening space for a gradual improvement of U.S.-Iran ties and cooling of regional tensions will require an agreement that rolls back rather than simply halts the progress of Iran's nuclear program, and it will require Tehran to come clean about its past nuclear work. In exchange, Washington should be prepared to offer broad relief from sanctions. Negotiating such an agreement will require a stiff spine from the Obama administration; the United States may need to increase the pressure on Iran even further and defer hopes of rapprochement until a sustainable nuclear accord is concluded.
To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, neither Obama nor Rouhani may get what they want from nuclear talks -- for Obama a historic diplomatic breakthrough, and for Rouhani the preservation of Iran's nuclear options and capabilities -- but with some effort each may get what he needs. For Rouhani, this is relief from the crushing burden of sanctions. For Obama, it is a strategic shift, not merely a tactical retreat, by Tehran.
Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Asia makes vividly undeniable what has been clear in certain quarters for some time: The administration's foreign-policy agenda has lost its mojo. Watered-down Syria resolutions, overhyped Iranian diplomatic overtures, and an understandable preoccupation with the U.S. fiscal melodrama do not obscure a fundamental truth -- Obama is really struggling on foreign policy. This is obvious to anyone who has served in positions of responsibility in the foreign-policy arena, and the American public has noticed too. With the highest disapproval ratings on foreign policy in his entire tenure, it is time for Obama and his foreign-policy team to step back and reconsider what they are doing. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but accomplishing that feat will require some fresh strategic thinking.
The pundit community is mostly focused on how to jump-start a healthy domestic political process. But even if fixing the domestic political dysfunction is indeed "Job No. 1," there is plenty of work to be done on the foreign relations front as well. Moreover, Obama and his team must also plan for the undesirable contingency that the domestic political crisis could worsen before it improves. We may face months of continued paralysis at home, and the international challenges will not wait for the resolution of the domestic challenges. The president cannot afford to let his foreign-policy languish -- or worse, to try to obscure domestic setbacks with faux diplomatic "breakthroughs" that come at the cost of sacrificing long-term U.S. national security objectives.
What Obama needs is a rebooted foreign-policy agenda, one that identifies real opportunities and confronts real challenges, and that can be pursued even if the domestic political crisis lingers. As the "loyal opposition," we at FP's Shadow Government blog have not been shy to point out when and where we think the Obama administration's policies have been wanting. But we are patriots first and Republicans second, and for our nation's sake we fervently do want to see American foreign policy succeed. We are also all former policymakers, and we know firsthand the profound difficulties in crafting and implementing successful policies. Many of us served during the second term of George W. Bush's administration, so we understand what it feels like to work in a presidency facing declining approval ratings, widespread pundit criticism, violent turbulence in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism, and agonizing challenges elsewhere in the world.
We also understand how hard it is to manage the daily deluge of the inbox, let alone find even a few minutes to think about new policy ideas. With that in mind, our contributors have each taken up the question "What one specific new policy proposal can I suggest to the Obama administration that could be realistically achieved in the next three years?" So, for our friends and readers in the Obama administration -- and we know there are at least a few of you -- we hope you will find the following helpful.
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Back in the fall of 2007, I was asked to speak at a joint academic-intelligence community conference looking at long-range trends, specifically ones that might come to fruition by 2025. I don't remember all my predictions, but I remember my last one: that there was a reasonable chance that the two-party system in the United States would not be dominated in 2025 by both the Democratic and Republican parties. I thought of that prediction when the political dysfunction in Washington culminated in the current government shutdown (with a looming debt-ceiling crisis in the wings).
There are good structural reasons the U.S. electoral system tends to only have two national parties, so it is unlikely that the United States would evolve toward an enduring multiparty system like those prevalent in Europe. But dominance by these particular two parties is not structurally determined. Both of these parties emerged out of the failures of previously dominant ones, and we may be witnessing the painful death of one or both of the existing parties.
Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that the Republicans are the ones dying and that the Tea Party revolt from within the Republican ranks is hastening the demise. That seems to be the calculation of President Barack Obama and his political advisors, who clearly think they will emerge from the shutdown crisis with a less-damaged brand than Republicans. I have even heard some Tea Partiers talk like that themselves, in a "we may have to destroy the Republican Party to save it" kind of way.
But the Democrats have their own deep divisions. If the shutdown were not dominating the news, the headlines might focus on unions' concerns about the impact of Obamacare on their core interests. And nowhere are those divisions more evident than in foreign policy. Obama's efforts on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, drone strikes, and so on all divide Democrats at least as much as they divide Republicans.
Right now Republicans look to be more fragile, but the Democrats only look strong by comparison. Combined, the prospects that both of these parties will be around to dominate the political scene in 2025 look dimmer today than they did in 2007 when I speculated one of them would pass.
This has obvious implications for domestic policy, but I think it matters greatly for foreign policy too. In fact, it is hard to identify a single, plausible, domestic political development that would have greater unpredictable impact on America's global role. It is striking that for the past century -- i.e., for the entirety of the "American century" in which the U.S. role has been pivotal for global affairs -- American politics has been dominated by Republicans and Democrats. We don't know what a credible third party might look like in the superpower era or what that new party might advance as its requisite foreign-policy platform.
It seems clear, however, that the necessary catalyst for the emergence of such a third party is manifest failure by one or both of the existing parties. It is premature to publish the obit for the existing parties, but the political crisis in Washington sure seems to be hastening that day.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
The prevailing narrative in the Western media regarding the new president of the Islamic Republic, Hasan Rouhani, is reminiscent of the optimistic assessment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by Jimmy Carter's administration. President Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, said that Khomeini would eventually be hailed as a saint; Carter's ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, observed that Khomeini was a Gandhi-like figure. Khomeini was seen by the administration at that time as a man of impeccable integrity and honesty. Today, of course, the gravity of this historic mistake and its consequences are self-evident.
Yet, we again are bearing witness to a similar self-deception as Rouhani is presented to Western publics as a moderate leader possessing charm and humility, a man of vision for a new, free Iran who wishes to pursue a constructive dialogue with the West. This is another historic mistake in the making, the consequences of which -- a nuclear-armed Iran -- will be catastrophic not only for the Iranian people but for the region and the international community.
Tehran has done its best to reinforce the view that Rouhani represents a major shift in the strategic direction in the Islamic Republic. In a seemingly humanitarian effort, for example, political prisoners close to the so-called reformist faction of the Islamic Republic were released only days before Rouhani's arrival in New York. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently displayed an unprecedented tolerance of the United States. Aware of the West's deep mistrust of him and his role in the current stalemate over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, Khamenei announced that it was time for what he described as "heroic leniency" with respect to direct talks with the United States. Rouhani himself told NBC News on Sept. 18 that "in its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority."
The White House announced that President
Barack Obama is willing to meet with Rouhani. Obama
noted in an interview with Telemundo that there are indications that Rouhani
"is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the
United States in a way that we haven't seen in the past." And therefore, Obama
said, he believes that the United States should test Iran.
Many in the Western media have convinced themselves that with Rouhani's arrival, there is a genuine opportunity to resolve the nuclear issue. Few, apparently, are willing to review Rouhani's statements, especially those made during his recent presidential campaign, which reveal the Islamic Republic's strategy in dealing with the international community on its nuclear program. During the last presidential election, the so-called hard-liners were critical of Rouhani's candidacy and accused him of being too soft with the West when he was serving as the Islamic Republic's chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. The sharpest criticisms were aimed at his agreement to suspend all enrichment activities in what was called the Saadabad agreement.
In an interview on Iranian state television on May 27, Rouhani refuted the allegation that he had overseen the curtailment of uranium enrichment activities, and in so doing he outlined the strategy the Tehran regime had pursued, its results, and the major tasks that he believes lie ahead.
Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has hit something of a rough patch in his much-ballyhooed charm offensive. Up until this week, he was clearly winning each news cycle. The dominant narrative was one of great expectation, boosting hopes that the long-sought "Iranian moderate," the earnest quest of American foreign-policy makers since 1979, had finally emerged.
Since arriving in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Rouhani has seemed to struggle. His decision not to shake President Barack Obama's hand deflated the optimists rather markedly. And even when he tried to encourage optimists by decrying the Holocaust, his government undermined him by blowing dog whistles to mollify the Holocaust-denier base of the Iranian regime. The net result has left Americans wondering just how moderate the Rouhani regime will end up being, regardless of how moderate Rouhani may or may not want to be.
Is there a bold step that Rouhani could take that would galvanize the optimists in the international community and, crucially, within the United States? I can think of one: releasing Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who is a victim of religious persecution, imprisoned for his faith inside Iran. The portion of the American public that depends only on the elite media for news will not know much about this case. I found only two brief hits (here and here) in the New York Times. However, today is the one-year anniversary of Abedini's imprisonment, and there is a full-page advertisement from Billy Graham in today's NYT print edition. Perhaps now the mainstream media will begin to pay attention to it.
Abedini's plight has been a much bigger concern among American Christians, as well as among those of all faiths who care deeply about the "first freedom" -- religious freedom. Abedini's wife writes movingly about her husband's plight. And she may have gotten closer to a face-to-face meeting with Rouhani than Obama did.
If Rouhani were to intervene on behalf of this victim of religious persecution, it would restore a substantial amount of charm to his charm offensive. It would broaden somewhat the political bargaining space and would wrong-foot Rouhani's fiercest critics. Rouhani's many supporters and well-wishers within the United States should add their voices to Billy Graham's, encouraging Rouhani to do the right thing: free this American citizen and put Iran on the path toward respecting the basic human right of religious freedom.
Photo: Thumbnail image from beheardproject.com/saeed
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.