A year ago, under skies as sunny as we’ve had lately, Iran’s just-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, had his premiere at the United Nations and popped open the door to a settlement on his nation’s nuclear program and a cooperative relationship with the U.S. after three and a half decades of bitterness and confrontation.
It’s easy to recall the optimism then in the air. As Rouhani made his way back to Kennedy for his flight home, he even had a call from President Obama—a page one historical reconnection for leaders of the two nations all by itself.
Not everyone was pleased. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, along with numerous American congressmen, saw danger and treachery under every bed, to borrow a phrase from our Cold War days. But many viewed this turn as the greatest foreign policy opportunity ever likely to come Obama’s way.
With Rouhani’s second appearance before the General Assembly, it’s possible to conclude, if tentatively, that Obama’s greatest opportunity on the foreign side is now on its way to becoming Obama’s greatest failure.
A year ago, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry insisted that nuclear talks between Iran and the Security Council powers plus Germany, the P5 + 1 group, must be sequestered from all other questions in the Middle East. Syria was the main event then, and the administration was determined to avoid any appearance of common ground in getting the Assad regime in Damascus to negotiate a political settlement, as Tehran favored.
Quarantining one negotiation from others was a little like saying inhaling and exhaling are separate bodily functions, as argued in this space at the time. And the miscalculation now sets up the Obama administration to blow a chance to alter the power balance in the Middle East such that the flames enveloping the whole region in conflict could be doused—maybe even decisively.
“Never has the Middle East been as endangered by instability and violence as it is today,” Rouhani said as he finished this year’s five-day stay last Friday. Put this against Obama’s remark a few weeks back, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Both men spoke the truth. The Middle East is a series of crises that must now be understood as one. The administration now has a battle plan, but neither the White House nor the State Department has advanced anything like a comprehensive response to the region-wide instability Rouhani described.
At this point, both sides of the new relationship with Iran in prospect last year—a nuclear deal and “extended cooperation,” which Rouhani said last week that he and Obama had discussed in that famous telephone call, are on the downward slope.
Nuclear negotiations are stuck on the specific question of how many uranium-enriching centrifuges P5 + 1 group will accept —Iran now has 19,000. More broadly, Rouhani reiterated in New York what he has said from the first: Tehran’s right to enrich for civilian purposes must be recognized and sanctions must be “melted away and deactivated,” as he artfully put it.
Rouhani expressed hope at certain moments for a deal by the November 24 deadline, then pessimism at others. This is a new variation on his familiar high-wire walk: We can still cut a bargain, but I’m covering my back at home if we don’t. It is a long way from this back to the reformist leader’s unalloyed optimism a year ago.
As to the question of wider cooperation, courteously bitter is the best description of Rouhani’s demeanor. The U.S. is “creating new terrorists” in arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria, Rouhani scolded, making it plain he thinks there are none worth arming, including the Free Syrian Army Washington now pins its hopes on.
Neither is the new bombing campaign against the ISIS going over well. Washington advised Tehran that it would commence the attacks but offered no chance of working together. Equally, bombing without the consent of the Syrian government (which Iran backs), or international approval, has unnecessarily prompted unease in Tehran, Rouhani indicated—and would be more effective were Syria and Iran allowed to participate in one or another capacity.
There is a lot of common ground to explore in a cooperative relationship with Iran. But the rewards entail a renovated Middle Eastern policy altogether and in fairness, the opportunity has come suddenly. It may be that no administration would’ve been ready to take it.
There are two failures justly assigned to Obama and Kerry. One, for all the imagery casting these two as pensive, big-picture intellects, they have built no framework within which to do the needed renovating. There’s no “there there” on the policy side—bombers, cruise missiles, drones, and checks written to dicey “moderates” coming up very short of a policy.
Two, this administration has done nothing to build the admittedly huge political will a policy drawing closer to Iran requires. Congress is one sticking point; Israel is the other. Both are tough to talk to on Iran, surely. But has either heard an argument from the White House or State compelling enough to turn them around?
Rouhani’s sign language was mixed in New York last week, but he left no doubt that the door remains open even as he is ready to hear it creak closed. Obama’s, in my read, was much less than mixed.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, met with Rouhani—who was delighted enough to tweet the occasion. Obama did not. “Is it written as a rule somewhere that two presidents must always communicate telephonically?” Rouhani asked at a Friday press conference.
Obama had time for a session with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the latest American- backed dictator in Egypt, however. It is difficult to imagine the preference went unnoted in Rouhani’s entourage.
What’s the message, Mr. President? We’ll stick with the old and eschew anything new? If this is it, it’s where failure lies.
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