Commentary

The Case for Engaging Iran

The U.S. and its allies are currently drawing the outline of new UN sanctions against Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama should resist the pressure from those politicians and pundits who, in the name of helping dissidents and promoting democracy in Iran, would effectively torpedo a pragmatic policy of opening a dialogue with Tehran which could lead in the short term to a deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama’s proposed initiative for diplomatic engagement with Iran is all but dead in light of the political upheaval that has followed the questionable outcome of the June 12 presidential election in Iran.The country’s internal turmoil, in this view, has diminished the chances of resolving the diplomatic standoff over the Islamic Republic’s refusal to freeze its nuclear program. The skepticism that has greeted the new report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), suggesting that Iran has slowed the expansion of its nuclear program is understandable from this perspective.

Indeed, those who assume that the politically shaky and insecure regime in Tehran is unable to respond to Obama’s overtures have concluded that Iran will now try to make temporary and meaningless gestures in order to buy time to complete its uranium enrichment.

This assessment reflects in part what its proponents argue is a realistic interpretation of what is taking place in Iran. But no one really knows much about the debate — if at all — that is taking place in Tehran in response to Obama’s call for a fresh start with Iran.

To a large extent, the pessimistic appraisal of the policy options that are available for Washington is based also on a judgment of what the Obama Administration ought to do now — notwithstanding the concrete response to its engagement offer from Iran. Indeed, opponents of an American opening to Iran argue that any move on the part of the Obama Administration to engage Tehran over the nuclear issue as well as other policy differences between the U.S. and Iran would amount to bestowing international legitimacy to the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Such engagement would also arguably strengthen the political power of the ruling Ayatollahs as they attempt to suppress an authentic pro-reform movement.

But the argument that the Obama Administration shouldn’t “reward” the Iranian President and his disfavored political allies is based on several misjudgments.

First, this view assumes that the ruling clerics’ desire to acquire nuclear military capability is a reflection of their radical, anti-Western and anti-Israeli agenda. In fact, having a nuclear bomb has been a national goal shared by almost all the main political factions and ideological orientations in Iran — including the religious fundamentalists and the secular liberals — going back to the late Shah of Iran. If anything, the perception among Iranians that Washington is trying to retard their national nuclear project could help the Iranian president rally support by depicting the members of the opposition as American stooges.

Moreover, it is time to concede that replacing a pragmatic policy to encourage an unsavory regime to change its policies with an approach based on the regime’s de-legitimization only helps to perpetuate its power and to ensure that it would move to protect itself against perceived U.S. threats. That even includes — like in the case of North Korea — going nuclear.

Engaging Iran as part of an effort to freeze its nuclear program would not be a reward to the Ayatollahs. It would be part of a strategy to advance U.S. strategic interests which successive American administrations have implemented by engaging anti-American totalitarian regimes (Soviet Union; China) as well as those espousing anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic views (Saudi Arabia) which, unlike Iran, have not even pretended to hold free elections.

Obama should also recognize that a reversal of his engagement policy, or even an attempt to slow it down, would only play into the hands of the extremists in both Tehran and Washington. It would create a diplomatic vacuum in which an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites would become inevitable.

Indeed, the danger with subscribing to the current conventional wisdom on Iran is that it could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.