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June 30, 2010

Of extended hands and slaps to the face


Now that Congress and the UN Security Council have approved “the toughest Iran sanctions ever written,” the Obama administration has some breathing room to go back to its plan for diplomacy.  But did the engagement strategy ever really start?
If you remember, Obama’s “extended hand” got pretty well chopped off at the wrist on June 12 when Iran’s hardliners declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the victor in an election widely believed to have been fraudulent.  After that came calls for a “tactical pause,” followed by the revelation of the undisclosed enrichment facility at Qom and the abortive attempt to negotiate a fuel swap deal in October.  Taken as a whole, US engagement with Iran under Obama has consisted of two Nowruz messages to the Iranian people, a half hour face-to-face meeting on Oct. 1, the lower level follow-up meeting three weeks later, a letter or two to the Supreme Leader, and that dinner with Mottaki just before the UN sanctions vote that no one thought would accomplish anything.  That’s it.
The sad fact is that Obama’s Iran strategy has focused a lot more on US allies and countries like Russia and China than on Iran.  The bulk of our diplomacy has consisted of Stuart Levey lobbying allied countries to withhold business ties from Iran, and convincing UN Security Council members to impose another round of sanctions.  Even the sanctions themselves target European, Russian, Indian, and Chinese companies — everyone except Iran.
Thus — Republican talking points notwithstanding — Obama has not “wasted a year on diplomacy.”  He’s hardly wasted 24 hours on diplomacy.
That’s why it’s particularly sad to see (former NIAC advisory board member) Amb. John Limbert planning to resign from his position as Undersecretary of State for Iran.  Limbert, a former US hostage in Tehran and the best Farsi-speaker in government, was brought into the administration to negotiate with the Iranians, having literally written the book on negotiating with Iran.  Now, one year later, he’s leaving government to go back to the US Naval Academy after participating in less than a couple of hours of actual talks.  That’s too bad.
And the prospects for starting up talks again don’t look too bright either.  Ahmadinejad announced this week that Iran will be willing to sit back down at the negotiating table in late August, saying the lull is necessary to “punish” the West for imposing more sanctions.  He also laid out his own demands for talks — though don’t expect Iran’s envoys to cling to these preconditions with the same fervor that the Bush administration did to zero enrichment.  To sum them up: there’s only one country’s nuclear program that Ahmadinejad wants to focus on — and it’s not Iran’s.
Take a guess…
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