A Far Cry from ‘Axis of Evil’

Hoping to derail the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President Obama today gave an unprecedented appeal to the Iranian people in a special video message. In it, he offers a “new beginning” of engagement to end the nearly 30 years of hostile bilateral relations. 

This video comes less than a month after the administration wrote a letter to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, who, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, truly controls the apparatus of government and has the final say on the country’s nuclear ambitions. Khamene’i sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after he won the presidency. 

My colleague, Justin Logan, has written extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran, such as here and here, to name a few. He argues — and I agree — that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails.

In response to those (usually neoconservatives) who fear Israel will be wiped off the map, Logan argues persuasively that attempting to deduce Iranian intentions from public statements is not helpful in ascertaining whether the clerical regime values self-preservation. Instead, we must evaluate what the regime has done when confronted with overwhelming force. For example, rather than wage the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) to the bitter end, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, one of Iran’s most radical Ayatollahs, saved his country from more suffering by accepting a disadvantageous ceasefire with Saddam Hussein.

Overall, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance their interests in the region. As I’ve written here, occasionally the interests of Tehran and Washington have overlapped, most recently when Iran quietly supported America’s effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Thus, it would be prudent for Washington to engage Tehran and allow it to produce uranium and plutonium if the regime agrees to IAEA safeguard regulations in compliance with United Nations resolutions.

National self-preservation has figured prominently in modern Iranian diplomacy. President Obama and his subordinates appear to understand that. Hopefully, this new strategy will work.