At first blush, the gripping images of popular uprising and deadly crackdown in Iran have severely complicated President Obama’s approach to that nation, jeopardizing his plans for deliberative “engagement” with Iran’s leaders to convince them to abandon their quest for nuclear weaponry.
How, after all, can the United States seek dialogue with a regime that is brutalizing its own people while the world looks on, mocking the freedoms of speech, press and assembly that Americans hold dear?
The continuing turmoil, however, may prove quite convenient for an administration that seems to recognize privately what it is reluctant to state too openly – that engagement will not likely achieve its stated objective.
In fact, administration skepticism surely explains why, even before the turmoil began, the president warned that engagement must generate progress by year-end and top officials expressed doubt about Iranian intentions
Now, with the brutal nature of Iran’s regime on broad display, the administration may have more public running room to soon shift from a strategy of engagement to one of mounting economic pressure.
That pressure probably would focus on the Achilles Heel of the regime – Iran’s dependence on refined petroleum products from abroad to feed its domestic needs. The regime, which recent events have exposed as deeply unpopular, could well lose its grip on power if the public suffers too much economic pain. And it is only threats to its power to which the regime will likely respond.
For now, the president remains publicly committed to his engagement agenda – and that has helped to re-ignite the longstanding debate in Washington between foreign policy “realists” and “idealists” over how the United States should treat the democratic aspirations of repressed peoples, whether in Iran or elsewhere.
Put (all too) simply, realists seek global stability, accept foreign governments as they are and eschew calls for a strong U.S. voice to promote democratic upheaval. Idealists promote such upheaval, for they believe the costs of global instability are worth the benefits to America of spreading democracy and human rights
Idealism and realism have battled for supremacy in Washington in recent decades, with, for instance, the former generally in ascendance under Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Reagan, and the second Bush and the latter holding sway under Presidents Eisenhower, the first Bush, and, apparently, the early tenure of Barack Obama.
Leaving aside the drawbacks of realism, of which there are many, Obama’s embrace of it helped him signal to key constituencies at home and abroad a sharp break from the controversial, and ultimately unpopular, idealism of George W. Bush.
At home, it signaled Obama’s liberal base that he would go the extra mile to change Iranian behavior before considering tougher measures, such as the economic pressure cited above, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Overseas, it reassured the global community that, unlike his unilateralist predecessor, this new president wanted to hear different views from friends and adversaries alike rather than merely impose America’s position
That may explain why the president has refrained from both full-bore backing of the protesters and full-throated criticism of the regime, opting instead for gradually stronger rhetoric in response to mounting criticism.
But, in the case of Iran (as the president and his aides must know), engagement and realism rest on a series of questionable premises: That Iran is a traditional nation-state; that it seeks better ties with the United States and the world at large; and that it naturally desires global acceptance, not isolation.
In fact, rather than a traditional state, Iran is an outlaw state, one that is headed by a theocratic dictator (the “Supreme Leader”); that treats domestic dissent and violations of Islamic orthodoxy with detainment, torture or gruesome death; that spreads mayhem and destruction abroad through the extensive network of terrorist groups that it funds and supports; and that seeks a regional hegemony that threatens key U.S. allies.
While Iran’s leaders continue to insist that the nation will never abandon its nuclear program – no matter what carrots the United States offers – its scientists move closer to a fully functioning nuclear program. The prospect of this regime with such weapons may now prompt more Americans to take notice.
If bloodshed in the streets of Tehran focuses greater public attention on that issue, giving the administration the leeway to adopt a tougher stance toward Iran, that may prove a timely turmoil indeed.