Iran Turmoil Emboldens Opponents of Obama Outreach

Push for Nuclear Negotiations Versus Concern About Repression

Tumult in Tehran: Soon after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) declared victory, demonstrators protested the election’s results. In a scene from a YouTube video, a dissenter is shown after being shot down by the pro-government Basij militia.
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Tumult in Tehran: Soon after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (right) declared victory, demonstrators protested the election’s results. In a scene from a YouTube video, a dissenter is shown after being shot down by the pro-government Basij militia.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.

Critics of the Obama administration’s call for negotiations with Iran have gained new life with the unrest there following disputed election results.

Among those calling on President Obama to reconsider engagement with Iran are Bush-era neoconservatives and congressional Republicans.

Pro-Israel activists, meanwhile, are maintaining a cautious approach, avoiding the issue of talks with Iran altogether.

But even moderates who back Obama’s outreach policy say the widespread popular protests in the streets of Tehran, the government’s aggressive attempts to suppress them and its efforts to limit media coverage of these events have raised new questions about Obama’s timing and scope for engaging with Iran.

“This will recalibrate the way the Obama administration thinks of moving forward with the Iranian nuclear issue,” said Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation. “There are voices now that say the regime may be in danger and therefore you might want to wait.”

The initial results of Iran’s June 12 presidential elections, giving a significant win for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were not seen as a deterrent for American-led engagement with Tehran. The Obama administration had taken into account that hardliner Ahmadinejad could emerge victorious, and had stressed that it would make little if any difference. The plans for engagement, administration officials explained, were aimed at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader and ultimate decision maker on national security issues.

Along with Israel, the administration’s priority concern is to stem Iran’s drive to advance its nuclear capabilities, part of an illegal effort by Iran, charge Western countries, to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, saying its nuclear development activities are civilian in nature.

Notwithstanding this urgent American interest, “the United States should wait until the election has played out domestically before commenting on or reaching out to the Iranian government,” said Karim Sadjapour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think we should be clear about what type of regime we are dealing with in Tehran. Just as we talk about Assad’s Syria and Mubarak’s Egypt, I think we are now dealing with Khamenei’s Iran.”

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a dovish group, said the outcome of Iran’s elections could have a “crippling effect” on diplomatic outreach attempts, since the United States will now be under increased pressure “for sanctions, and for quick results from the engagement.”

With the continued turmoil in Iran, neoconservatives, who had been engaged in soul-searching and re-grouping since the 2008 elections, are now leading criticism of Obama’s plan to engage with Iran. They warn that the events on the ground confirm their approach, which advocated regime change and zero tolerance for totalitarian regimes in the Middle East. And they are lambasting the administration for failing to speak out forcefully on behalf of those protesting the election results.

They are joined by Republican critics and former Bush administration officials who believe it is time for Obama to reconsider extending his hand to the Iranian regime.

“Engagement without an effort to talk to the “other Iran” would not only be a travesty, but tactically foolish, as well,” argued Dan Senor and Christian Whiton, both former officials with the Bush administration, in a June 17 Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

Others on the right were less gracious toward Obama. Ralph Peters of the New York Post said the brutal crackdown on opposition supporters in Iran was a “clenched fist shoved in Obama’s face.” And in a Washington Post opinion piece, Robert Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute argued that Obama’s strategy toward Iran “places him objectively on the side of the government’s efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition’s efforts to prolong the crisis.”

Obama himself had a ready reply to these critics of his so-far low-key public expressions of concern. Alluding to America’s negative profile in Iran due to its long support for the former shah and its participation in the 1953 ousting of a democratic government in Tehran, he told reporters June 16, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iran relations, to be seen as meddling in Iranian elections.”

Marshall Breger, a senior Reagan administration aide who acted as the White House liaison to the Jewish community, agreed.

“All of the Iranian pro-democrats [say] it’s a mistake,” said Breger, who has been engaged for several years in quiet interfaith talks with Iranian religious leaders. “The Ahmadinejad people want to say we’re replaying 1953.”

Voices calling for rethinking Obama’s plan for engaging in diplomacy with Iran have not gained much traction with congressional Democrats, Obama’s stronghold on foreign policy issues. While expressing concern over human rights and free speech, Democrats stood by Obama’s diplomatic approach. Howard Berman, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement June 16 warning Iran’s regime that “the rest of the world is watching closely.” But, in line with the president’s wishes, he has continued to hold back for now on advancing a new Iran sanctions bill to the House floor that is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

On the Republican side of the aisle, however, criticism was mounting as lawmakers argued that Obama should have spoken out more forcefully in favor of the Iranian reformists.

“The administration’s silence in the face of Iran’s brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Middle East,” said Republican Eric Cantor, minority whip and the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives. Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut called on the administration and Congress to “unambiguously express their solidarity with the brave Iranians.”

Complicating the already tangled situation the administration is in regarding Iran is the sudden move of Obama’s Iran point man to the National Security Council at the White House from the State Department.

Dennis Ross, now special adviser to the secretary of state for Southwest Asia, is expected to move to the White House, where he will continue to advise on Iran and assume more responsibility on Middle East issues. Despite the fact that the move was described as no more than a bureaucratic decision, it sparked rumors in Washington about the reasons for the surprise move and for its timing.

Ross is a veteran Middle East negotiator who, after leaving the administration in 2000, assumed, among other positions, the leadership of a Jewish affairs think-tank associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The administration would not provide official information regarding Ross’s expected move to the White House, but some analysts speculated that it could be a result of his hard-line views regarding engagement with Iran, as presented in a book he recently published. The book, co-authored with David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, expresses a fair amount of skepticism regarding the prospects of diplomatic engagement with Iran. Ross has made clear that he supports engagement, but put the need to pursue this option in the context of proving to the world that America tried its best before moving on toward tough sanctions.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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