In the run-up to a new round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran on Monday, Western commentators are re-hashing old arguments that the Islamic Republic is either too politically divided or too dependent on hostility toward the United States for its legitimacy to be seriously interested in a nuclear deal. From this perspective, the Obama administration has been more than forthcoming in its efforts to “engage” Tehran; the obstacles to diplomatic progress are all on the Iranian side.
But a sober examination of the Obama administration’s interactions with Iran since President Obama took office in 2009 reveals a dismaying mix of incompetence and outright duplicity that has done profound damage to American interests and credibility. In light of this record, the question is not whether the United States should have any confidence it can productively engage the Islamic Republic. The real question is: why should Iranian officials believe they can trust President Obama and his administration to deal with them straightforwardly and with a genuine interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff?
The recent release of the Wikileaks cables confirms the assessment we have been offering since May 2009: The Obama administration has failed to follow up on President Obama’s early rhetorical overtures to Tehran with bold steps and substantive proposals to demonstrate its seriousness about rapprochement. Strategic engagement — think Nixon and China — is not the same as “carrots and sticks”. In fact, strategic engagement requires a self-conscious effort by the United States to put “sticks” aside in order assure Iran that it is serious about realigning relations. And that is something the Obama administration has never been willing to do. (Obama’s vague letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — dispatched as Obama ignored two letters sent by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — were seen in Tehran as just the latest U.S. attempt to “game” Iran’s political system rather than to come to terms with it.)