Written by Barry Rubin
The great French diplomatist Talleyrand put it best: "That's worse than a crime, it's a mistake."
By accepting the Iranian proposal for negotiations, the Obama Administration has just made the most important foreign policy decision of its term so far. And it is a very bad mistake, a very bad one indeed.
True, the idea of engagement was a U.S. idea. The Iranian regime ignored it for months. And then at the very last moment, the Tehran government sent a five-page letter calling for talks. The letter, which was rather insulting to the United States, didn't even mention the nuclear program as a topic. ber of observers have labelled it insulting Shouldn't that be enough to reject it as insufficient?
Everyone should understand the timing of this letter. On one hand, it came after the most extreme government in two decades took over that country; after a stolen election; after the repression of peaceful demonstrations; after the show trials of reform-minded oppositionists, and after the appointment of a wanted terrorist as minister of defense.
Never have prospects for negotiations resolving U.S.-Iran differences, including the nuclear program, seemed poorer.
At the same time, the United States was finally on the verge of raising sanctions against Iran. True, the increase was insufficient and neither Russia nor China was on board. Yet this was going to be a major step.
Never have prospects for the Obama Administration making some real effort to confront Iran and press for ending the nuclear program seemed better.
Now this whole U.S. strategy has been swept away by no one other than the U.S. government itself.
Few people in the U.S. government think that the talks will lead anywhere. They will eat up months and months, as the Tehran regime consolidates control and surges forward in its nuclear program. The timing of sanctions will presumably be put off until "after" the talks are finished, meaning the Iranian regime will be able to string along America for as long as it wants.
Not to mention the fact that this is a repressive, extremist, anti-American, antisemitic, terrorist-sponsoring government which is going to remain so in every respect no matter how many sessions are held with U.S. delegates.
But it gets worse. After all, what does the Iranian offer, entitled "Cooperation, Peace and Justice," say? Well, it calls for a reform of the UN to abolish the veto powers, a Middle East peace settlement without Israel's existence, and universal nuclear disarmament, the last being another idea with which Obama saddled U.S. policy.
It isn't hard to imagine what will be said in the talks: When the United States gives up all its nuclear arms than Iran will do so also. But if America has such weapons, Iran is perfectly entitled to them also. Tehran will play to the "non-aligned," Third World, Muslim-majority states in the bleachers. U.S. policy is letting Iran play the role of Third World leader and champion against the hegemonist West.
The mind reels.
And since, still another Obama idea taken up by the Iranians, the talks are unconditional, Iran will just go on sponsoring terrorism (including attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq and some evidence indicates Afghanistan), sabotaging any hope of regional peace, and Lebanon's independence.
In its inimitable way, the New York Times explains:
"The decision is bound to raise protests from conservatives who contend that unconditional talks are naÃ¯ve, and from human rights groups that say the United States should not legitimize an Iranian government that appears to have manipulated its presidential election in June and crushed protests after the vote."
So only evil conservatives or well-intentioned but naive human rights' activists will be against this? How about protests from liberals, centrists, and experts, people who just care about U.S. national interests? What about the reaction of regional states, both Arab and Israeli, who are friends of the United States that are menaced by Iran?
What I never get is this: Who are these people and powers who oppose a tough U.S. stand now but will be convinced that sanctions should go up after they watch a few months of failed talks? Certainly not the Russian and Chinese governments, that's for sure. Can anyone supporting administration policy answer that question? Will anyone in the mass media even ask that question?
In its engaging way of publishing opinion as fact, the Times explains it all to us:
"During [President George Bush's] first term, talks with unfriendly countries like North Korea and Iran were usually rejected out of hand in the hope of speeding their collapse. That loosened in Mr. Bush's second term, but even then agreements to talk were usually under highly restricted conditions.
"The result was a stalemate - one that Mr. Obama argued during last year's presidential campaign was a huge mistake, in part because Iran was producing nuclear material while the standoff dragged on."
Aha! But there are things worse than stalemate: defeat, losing ground, being paralyzed, facilitating your enemy's progress. And of course there is a third option, one which the Obama Administration seemed to be planning, called raising sanctions higher.
No! One doesn't have to ask for that much. How about this basic concept: First, raise the sanctions and only then start the talks. Make it clear that the sanctions will continue as long as Iran doesn't change its behavior but that the United States is happy to negotiate from a position of strength rather than from one of weakness.
Even if you want to be soft-line and conciliatory there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. The Obama Administration has chosen the wrong way.
In fact, does the Administration plan to play it smart by talking and raising sanctions at the same time? Maybe, but it seems the answer is "no." There won't be a tougher policy while talks are going on.
You don't need a diplomacy scientist to understand this means a free ride for the Iranian regime.
In a sense, the Obama Administration seems to be practicing anti-diplomacy and anti-strategy. Consider this statement from U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice: The administration, she explained, would not impose "artificial deadlines" on Iran.
What does that mean? It means: Take as long as you want.
She added that if not much has happened so far that was because Iran's "elections and their aftermath have added a layer of complexity to assessing the overtures and offers of diplomatic engagement."
A "layer of complexity"? One can only gasp. All aspects of that layer have been clear indications that diplomatic engagement wouldn't work.
And one final point. At first, the leaks were that both the United States and the Europeans rejected the letter. Yet within two days this was all reversed and they accepted it.
Why would such a thing happen?
Unless they received some secret Iranian assurances-which is possible but doubtful-it means that the State Department mid-level officials scoffed at the letter but as it went up the chain of command, to Obama itself, he chose to accept it. There's no doubt that this decision was made at the very top and there are also indications that wiser heads who understand the situation better were against it.
For those waiting for the Administration to make some dreadful mistake, they now apparently have their case.
One close Washington observer of Iran policy stated in bewilderment, "This makes no sense."
But it can be made sense of in several ways. One is that the Administration leadership has no idea of what it's dealing with. Another is that it has fallen prey to wishful thinking. A third is that seeing the Russians and Chinese would not support sanctions, the Administration viewed acceptance as a face-saving way of avoiding admission that it did not have unanimous support for raising sanctions (though even then it should have gone ahead and shown some leadership).
All these points are true but the most important single answer might also involve something else: a government desperately seeking to avoid even a lower-level confrontation and passionately desiring to do nothing about the most dangerous issue it and the world faces.
Let's put it this way: President Barack Obama is tall, handsome, a riveting speaker (at least with a teleprompter), and educated at Harvard University. He was elected in a fair and democratic election.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is short, clown-like, a demagogue, and without impressive educational credentials. He seized power after fixing an election, repressed peaceful demonstrations, and has put his peaceful opponents on show trials.
Guess who's winning their competition? In fact, guess who's the only one who even knows that a battle between their countries is going on?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).