September 9, 2010

Clinton’s Rhetoric on Iran: Does It Match the Administration’s Actions?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a wide-ranging speech yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations on the current and future United States role in the international community.  In addition to commenting on general trends and intentions, Secretary Clinton discussed many individual policy issues, one of which was Iran.  She described how the United States is engaged in diplomatic efforts to pull Iran into compliance with the global non-proliferation regime and to provide Iran  a route back “into the community of nations.”  She explained how this diplomatic posture allowed the administration to use “classic shoe-leather diplomacy” to put strong international sanctions in place.
“The choice for Iran’s leaders is clear”, Clinton said, ” and they have to decide whether they accept their obligations, or increasing isolation and the costs that come with it. And we will see how Iran decides. “
A few of Secretary Clinton’s remarks are encouraging, particularly her assurance that the Administration remains committed to talks.  “[S]anctions and pressures… are not ends in themselves,” she said, “They are the building blocks of leverage for a negotiated solution.”  Certainly this administration has been at least willing to give lip service to public diplomacy and engagement efforts with the Iranian government, something the previous US administration in its single-minded focus on regional change through hard power failed to try.
However, although the administration’s positions on some issues within Iran are encouraging, they have failed to integrate their approaches into a strategy for a true solution.  For example, Secretary Clinton’s insistence that sanctions and pressures are “building blocks of leverage” ignores situations when those “leverage points” actually undermine constructive engagement efforts, like the passage of new sanctions that undercut the Tehran Declaration.  Genuine opportunities for engagement between the US and Iran are rare.  The administration should not eschew negotiations opportunities to pursue further punitive sanctions that will not go any farther towards resolving the Iranian nuclear debate. 
Furthermore, Secretary Clinton’s description of the engagement offered by the United States to Iran included her saying that, “Through our continued willingness to engage Iran directly, we… are removing all of those excuses for lack of progress.”  This quote indicates that she sees  engagement as a necessary step before other things like sanctions and pressure are applied.  The positioning of engagement as merely another tool to “check off the list” before others are tried ignores the fundamental need for some sort of strategic relationship based on mutual dialogue between the United States and Iranian leaders in order to solve the dispute between both countries.  A half-hearted engagement policy will, at best, produce half-hearted results.
The impression you are left with after hearing Secretary Clinton’s remarks is that there is still a gap between what the Obama administration says it wants to achieve and what it actually has done vis-à-vis Iran.  Emphasizing long-term negotiated solutions is important.  Still, the administration needs to significantly boost the credibility of its engagement efforts with Iran before more scholars start comparing the administration’s policies with Obama’s predecessor-in-chief, something he just might find less than flattering.

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