For Haass (and many other Americans, one suspects), Obama was being incredibly generous last week. In Haass’s mind, saying that the world’s most powerful country won’t seek regime change in Iran is a wonderful gift, a lavish sign of American goodwill. Never mind that overthrowing the Iranian regime would be an illegal act of war. Never mind that Haass would probably not see a pledge by Rouhani that Iran does not seek regime change in America as giving the United States “quite a lot.”
This attitude is symptomatic of an enduring U.S. foreign- policy mindset: Overthrowing other governments is just one of those “normal” options that we keep in our foreign-policy tool kit, and telling another country we won’t actually use it this time is a really big sacrifice on our part.
It also can’t escape the notice of Iranians that doubt U.S. intentions that Obama has claimed not to favor regime change in another country, namely Libya, shortly before launching a military campaign aimed at achieving exactly that. Pledging not to overthrow the Iranian government is the bare minimum required to encourage trust that the U.S. is willing to accept a deal on the nuclear issue, but it is still a very small, boilerplate commitment. It would be a more meaningful gesture, and a real shift in policy, if Obama had said that the U.S. will not wage preventive war against Iran. Once again, that isn’t much of a concession in that it simply commits the U.S. to adhere to international law, but it would be an indication that the U.S. wants to reduce tensions with Iran.
As Walt observes, it isn’t up to Washington to permit Iran to have a nuclear program:
But Iranians see their “right” to a peaceful program as something they already possess; it is not a gift or a concession or a sign of U.S. goodwill. From their perspective, there was no need for Rouhani to offer up something in return.
This is important to keep in mind because Iran hawks will be very eager to portray Obama’s pursuit of diplomacy with Iran as a series of “giveaways” in exchange for nothing. If we treat boilerplate rhetoric that acknowledges Iranian rights as if it were a major concession, it will become politically impossible for the U.S. to make the real concessions needed to secure an agreement. That will give Iran no incentive to compromise, since it will conclude that any concessions it is willing to offer will not be matched. Paul Pillar addresses this in a new post today:
If the expectation is for Tehran to make substantial unilateral concessions or changes in its nuclear activities with nothing in return, then we are dwelling in the same fantasy world of those in the West and Israel who do not want any agreement at all and make unmeetable demands to try to preclude one.
The U.S. needs to be prepared to offer substantial sanctions relief if Iran is willing to accept limited enrichment inside Iran. Otherwise, Iran will see the exchange as an extremely lopsided one and won’t take the deal. Anything less than offering substantial sanctions relief virtually guarantees that negotiations won’t yield any of the desired results.