Alex Massie asks what effect the recent events in Iran will have on the Obama administration’s plans for diplomatic engagement:
Obama’s preference for engagement is, I think, likely to be untenable assuming, as seems quite likely, that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei survive. At the very least, it’s going to be put into the freezer for a few months until a moment arrives at which the United States can pretend that none of this ever happened. But even then, it’s hard to see what Washington can offer the Iranians to persuade them to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Indeed, a regime that feels itself ever more isolated and surrounded by enemies is likely to be more determined to get the bomb than it was before. And of course it was pretty keen on getting nukes anyway.
Leaving aside for the time being the question of whether U.S. policy in negotiating with the Iranians should be premised on keeping them from developing nuclear weapons after all, it seems to me that Alex’s take is sad but true. It’s true, because domestic political pressures are clearly going to make it highly unlikely that Obama will recognize the legitimacy of the Khamenei- and Ahmadinejad-led Iranian regime in a way and on a time scale conducive to productive negotiations with it. Given the events of the past two weeks, not only the usual suspects among the neoconservative right but also many of the erstwhile realist liberals who have thrown their lot in with the Iranian opposition would quickly become harsh and vocal critics of any such move; and as Daniel has noted, Obama’s record of retaining his sanity in response to such criticisms is not an especially promising one. What is the likelihood that those establishment voices who so effectively criticized Obama for largely keeping his mouth shut in the face of these recent events will somehow let him off the hook on the issue of negotiation? And, what is the likelihood that Obama and his advisers will dismiss those criticisms for the nonsense that they are and engage with the Iranian regime as they had originally planned? Here as ever, the demands of electoral politics are likely to trump those of international statecraft, and plans for engagement will likely remain on ice for much longer than just a few months.
The reasons why this situation is a sad one should go without saying. Aside from serving as a balm for guilty Western consciences and a way to make us feel that we have Done Something for the cause of freedom in Iran, refusing to recognize the legitimacy and negotiation-worthiness of the admittedly illegitimate and unworthy regime will accomplish nothing at all to help the situation, and indeed is likely only to make it worse. As I noted yesterday, the notion that expressions of American condemnation are going to help bring the Iranian government’s behavior in line with U.S. goals is patently ridiculous; in fact, faced with the international community’s lack of recognition, the Iranians are overwhelmingly likely to become only more hostile to the West, and more set on developing nuclear weapons as a means to protect themselves and regain whatever international sway their government’s actions may have cost them. And when this happens, then what? Alex suggests that recent events have done even more damage to arguments in favor of military action than to the case for diplomacy, but in practice things are likely to be quite otherwise: the spectre of an illegitimate authoritarian regime with nuclear weapons is an even more effective tool for generating a warmongering frenzy than that of a legitimate one, and pro-war voices are guaranteed to appeal to the protests of the past week as evidence that the poor, oppressed Iranians are just waiting for the arrival of their international liberators. Short of forcing these critics’ hand by quietly – indeed, perhaps even secretly at first – recognizing and beginning negotiations with the Iranian government as soon as the protests cease being front page news, it is hard for me to see how the president can forestall the oh-so-predictable series of events that will lead almost inexorably to exactly the sort of war he was elected to prevent.