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What's the Harm in Obama's Approach to Iran?

President Obama has been criticized by some Republicans for his public statements on, and to, Iran since he entered the White House. And it is true that there is something a bit noxious about the president going out of his way to speak respectfully of “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” given that Iran is as much a “republic” as the Soviet Union was a collection of “republics.”

But there is logic to the administration’s approach. After all, if the White House is going to give diplomacy and engagement a chance, it might as well do so thoroughly and aggressively. Pay Iran’s leaders the respect some of our Iran experts claim they crave. Put on the friendliest possible face. Remind the Iranians of all the international goodies they can get if only they take the necessary steps on their nuclear program. Draw the starkest contrast between the present benevolent U.S. administration and the evil Bush administration.

What is the risk? It’s not as if the Bush administration was doing anything to help the people of Iran rid themselves of their leaders. And it’s not as if the Bush administration’s approach had slowed Tehran down, either in its pursuit of nuclear weapons or in its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. Of course, the Obama White House is trying a different tack. The American bottom line hasn’t changed, only the tactics -- as the Iranians themselves have pointed out. “The problems will not be solved by them altering the words or selecting the terms they use,” said Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament. So one of two things is going to happen: Either the friendly diplomatic approach works, and the Iranians actually cave and accept American and European demands, which would be good. Or the friendly approach doesn’t work, and the Iranians proceed on their present course, thus proving that even diplomacy sincerely pursued by a well-intentioned president has no impact on Tehran’s calculations. I honestly can’t see the harm in the Obama administration’s efforts. I hope they succeed.

By Robert Kagan  | March 25, 2009; 5:29 PM ET
Categories:  Kagan  | Tags:  Robert Kagan  
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Next: Obama's Gutsy Decision on Afghanistan


Are you sure you're feeling O.K. Kagan? I'm beginning to worry.

Posted by: dougharty | March 25, 2009 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Your way failed entirely Mr Kagan. Since you and the rest of the Republican party are incapable of objectively analyzing your mistakes or even admitting that they exist it would be counter-productive and dangerous to follow your lead now.
Until Israel's illegal nuclear arsenal becomes part of the debate, there will be no progress or cooperation with Iran or any other middle eastern nation on nuclear arms.
The biggest challenge now is repairing the damage your ideas have already done in communicating with the rest of the world.

Posted by: fishingriver | March 25, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Kagan is a dirtball Neocon world class troublemaker. Please drop dead.

Posted by: AIPACiswar | March 25, 2009 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Kagan and Kristol, co-founders of PNAC, architects of Bush's disastrously failed policies in Iraq and the rest of the world.

What in the name of all that is moral and decent are these two discredited, neo-con crazies doing in the pages of the Washington Post?

Posted by: pali2600 | March 25, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Persistence seems to be 'de rigeur'.

We have 'persistent' divisions over US sanctions on Iran; 'persistent' speculation of Iranian nuclear weapons or 'WMD'; a 'persistent' discrepancy between Vanunu's statement on Israeli nukes and Israel's 'keep 'em guessing retoric; 'persistent' questions regarding Russia's ongoing defense arms sales to Iran.

In sum, despite Obama's courage, strength, political realism, humility and self-confidence in his gestures towards Iran, there remains a 'persistent' fatal flaw in the Obama approach that amounts to a lingering streak of arrogance that is reflected in both the tone and the substance of his conflicting messages to Iran.
This is most obvious (after telling the Iranians that they are a great culture with proud traditions, which is presumably something they already knew, experienced and felt on their own) in his lecturing Iran about the responsibilities that come with the right to assume its place in the "community of nations," and then linking Iran's behavior with "terror of arms" and a "capacity to destroy."
It is difficult to see how Washington can reconcile the positive gesture of reaching out with Obama's irrepressible need to lecture others about the rules of righteous nationhood.

One of the principal complaints that Iran has against the U.S. - and this is mirrored in widespread Arab and Islamist resistance to the U.S. and its allies - is the lingering colonial tendency by the leading Western powers to feel that they write the rules for the conduct of other nations.

This 'persistent' error is exacerbated by Washington sending hundreds of thousands of troops into Iraq on a dubious and destructive mission, backing Israel with a gusher of arms, and then enthusiastically standing by Israel while children are murdered in UN safe camps in a policy of state terror.

Posted by: coiaorguk | March 25, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

What I think you're saying, Mr. Kagan (I enjoy your father's lectures), is that if the Democratic strategy fails, then imperial America is a hapless giant. Is that correct? Are our paths such simple bifurcation as what you seem to be here accepting?

The United States is overextended in two theaters because of the selfish principle in conservative "philosophy" which refuses taxation to fund any project (including the imperial) and refuses sacrificial conscription in service to our nation.

Isn't statism really the way to go for imperialism? Strengthen the state against democracy if you want to realize your ambition.

Remember Athens.

Posted by: stephendclark | March 25, 2009 8:22 PM | Report abuse

What's the Harm in Obama's Approach to Iran?

I don’t see any harm in President Obama’s approach to Iran, because in order to receive respect you have to give respect. You have to exercise caution, true, but to disregard and disrespect another didn’t solve anything in the past. I think one should exercise a protocol extending a level of concern to understand the nature of another that one may understand and have a accommodating agenda or atmosphere to work with. Just to forcefully continue to war with no end, where has it lead us too. Billions of dollars wasted, collapsed economy and a misfit of attributes to no end. Restoration is what we need, so I don’t understand why our country can’t grasp the reality or reason on a diplomatic approach seeking knowledge to understanding the nature of this entire war ordeal.

Posted by: Nisey01 | March 25, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

The odds that Iran is going to attack the United States are zero.

Move to Israel where you belong and leave us alone. You've done enough damage already.

Posted by: patrick3 | March 25, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Great danger lies in the notion that you can reason with evil.

From the nation that hangs rape victims, women who wear short skirts, homosexuals, converts from Islam, and supports insurgents in Iraq who kill American troops.....we go to to make dialogue and "diplomacy".

I'd much rather send a few thousand missiles as payback for the friends that were laid to rest due to Iran's Al quds.

Israel needs nukes to protect itself from the Arabs who started wars no less than 6 times from 1948 up until present day. There are around..oh..20 Arab nations that are avowed enemies of Israel. About half a billion Arabs. There are 10 million jews in Israel. Do the math.

Posted by: AAVp7a1 | March 25, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Mr. Kagan, for wishing Obama well in his attempts to negotiate rather than annihilate. One cannot help but be surprised at your attitude, since we are more than aware of your background with PNAC, the American Enterprise Institute, et al. Perhaps you've had a change of heart...and that would be a blessing.

Posted by: dangerosa | March 25, 2009 10:50 PM | Report abuse

There are two obvious flaws in the author's analysis: (1) Iran is not "pursuing nuclear weapons" (according to all 16 US intelligence agencies' consensus in our Government's last NIE on Iran); and (2) it is stupid (or malicious) to expect that Iran will "cave" and accept whatever our Government and/or the "west" demands of Iran. Lying about another sovereign nation's military capabilities and/or intentions can only result in the kind of unmitigated disaster that occurred in Iraq, which this same author's lies about non-existent WMDs did much to bring about. Assuming that other nations will or should "cave" to US demands is equally noxious. I don't understand why the Post persists in giving credence to the patently unsound and false arguments of this author.

Posted by: rlyoung311 | March 25, 2009 11:46 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Robert Kagan, we have little to lose in making an emphatic and sincere demonstration of our willingness to talk out our differences.

But the chances that this will work are zilch. And Kagan knows it. The Iranians are not willing to be negotiated out of their ambition. Moreover, they prefer the current perception, that we are cold shouldering them, when in fact it is the other way around. I suppose Kagan's point is to show up that lie.

We must remember that it was they who broke diplomatic relations, they who invaded our embassy and took our personnel prisoner and held them for 444 days, they who have ever since called us, the Great Satan. To this day their leaders speeches are punctuated by chants of: Death to America.

It's they who don't want to talk to us, because they know what we want to talk about, and they have no inclination to give an inch on their quest for a nuclear arsenal.

Thus, in Nov 2007 Secretary Condi Rice went to a conference in Sharm el Sheck in the hope of starting up unofficial talks. The Egyptians placed her for dinner at the Iranian Foreign Minister's table. When he saw Rice sitting down directly opposite him, so that he would be compelled to at least exchange pleasantries, he arose and walked out of the room explaining that a Ukrainian violinist in the room was immodestly dressed.

And when conversations have occurred, the Iranians have simply and blatantly lied. In 2006 Ambassador Crocker managed to have two sessions with Iran on the question of Iraq, one lasted 4 hours. There the Iranians bluntly denied the activities of the Quds force and that the insurgents were receiving any Iranian aid; following those sessions, that support in money, training, arms and explosives increased.

So sure, show our good will. But then what?

Posted by: nacllcan | March 26, 2009 6:04 AM | Report abuse

i am sure President Obama's approach to opening dialogue with Iran would succeed.this would help reduce the trust deficit that the United States foreign policy unfortunately suffers in this region.

it is better and civilised to address the people and leadership of another country politely,particularly when the Bush Admin in the recent past has been rough and rude towards Iran.Mr Obama's call would invite a positive response for a meaningful dialogue.

Iran,an ancient and civilised state,has remained peaceful and has not committed aggression against its neighbours for over two centuries.Iranians are a cultured and polite people;their self respect and dignity in their great culture and civilzation should not be mis-interpreted. Iranians are known to be very keen on improving relations with America in perticular and the West in general.
so,go ahead and good luck.

Posted by: aitezaza | March 26, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

i found a gerbil in my shoe this morning

Posted by: GanGreene | March 26, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

My wife is currently visiting her family in Esfahan,IRI. I wish it were possible that I was with her for it is a beautiful old city full of friendly people. I know this because of two extended trips there with her in previous years.

It is a pity most American know nothing of Iran but the incident of our diplomats being taken hostage for 444 days.

They may not be aware that we overthrew their democratically elected government in 1953 because Iranians wanted to end the confiscatory effects of the British in their petroleum industry. The result was our puppet, the Peacock Throne of the Shah. So when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Iranian students took over the US embassy because of their fears of another CIA coup just like we did in 1953. Maybe unwise, but not unfounded in reality.

I hope for peace through diplomacy, but it must start with our realization of past mistakes.

Posted by: tarquinis1 | March 26, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Considering Robert Kagan's track record, I I take his piece to signal nothing but a shrug on the matter.
If that applies, then he's right to shrug.
The salient questions to ask about our problem with Iran, are: How much time is there before they have "the bomb"; and
what if they do have it? Talking to them will scarcely help us find the answers.
But if we talk, there must be Caspian caviar for dinner.

Posted by: Defoe | March 26, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

AAVp7a1 : I agree with you on Iran's horrific human rights record, I have absolutly no sympathy for their leaders, however, think of this; If an Islamic nation invaded Canada and Mexico simultaneously do you think we'd get involved?

My question is in no way trying to justify Iran being responsible for kiling American troops, however, I can understand why any country would get real nervous if two countries on their border get invaded by the world's superpower, especially after being branded as part of the "axis of evil".

Posted by: JRM2 | March 26, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Obama is in fact tacking toward a different relational experience with Iran. I heard that at a Davos meeting a few years back Ahmadenejad publically asserted he beleived tht the US had no options regarding Iraq and Iran. Econoimic pressure, a strike, an invasion is either not going to work or would not prevent Iran from obtaining the ability to quickly produce nuclear weaponry, if they deem it important for self-preservation.

Obama did in fact overtly accuse Iranians of terrorism in his happy greeting.

However, this insert was meant to be a terror-bad-behavior proviso effecting the appearance of political condescension to the Iranian populace.

He obviously meant to partially discredit his own overall message to the typical Iranian populace who, like the general American populace, are not familiar with intra-government dialogue which often contrevenes public statements. Khatemi simply obliged by pointing out the discrepancy, in apparent puzzlement.

Imagine Iranians hearing Obama's message without the condescension-proviso--they would think we are setting them up! Imagine Americans hearing Obama saying all these goochy thoughts without the proviso--that was obviously to make this outgoing message digestible to the still-skeptical Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Readers should recognize the Obama Noruz message as an obvious start to a major new attitude toward Iran's government, contrasting what President Cheney advocated, in a way that would be tenable to both the Iranian populace and the American populace.

Not hard to figure out.

Posted by: punkumin | March 27, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Robert Kagen. I dont see the harm in Obama's approach to Iran.

For the past 8 years, the Bush administration tried to reason and work with Iran, for the most part unsuccessfully. All Obama is trying to do is to try a new tactic. He is trying the "give respect to get respect" tactic. He is addressing Iran with exaggerated courtecy and respect in hopes of recieving some respect and cooperation back.

I understand the frustration of some Americans towards Obama's speech. They feel that Iran, a country that refers to us as the "Great Satan", a country that
invaded our embassy and held our
diplomats hostage for 444 days doesn't deserve a courteous approach. But I think what they fail to notice is that we are have done our share of trouble making also. I think they fail to understand that we can't fight fire with fire. We have to put our frustration and anger to the side and try to understand the historic and religious motives behind Iran's actions. In order to cooperate effeciantly, both sides must understand the opposing view point.

Posted by: Delilah001 | March 27, 2009 9:26 PM | Report abuse

Obama's trusting approach will probably do no harm at all with Iran and has done some good already--if not with the leaders of Iran, then elsewhere in the region. No amount of diplomacy will deter Iran from pursuing its goals (whatever those are). That has been the lesson of the last several years, as the EU has tried the same approach Obama is trying now. The advantage to the Obama approach is not that it will turn Iran to any degree, but that it will help isolate Iran by making the rest of the world more likely to side with us should Iran do or threaten something (else) nefarious. That would be a small victory but not much else is possible.

The only danger in the Obama approach comes from Russia, which has always, will again, and is starting to now exploit weakness like a shark.

Posted by: Compared2What | March 28, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

I found your opinion to be a useless one as you are. It is the same way off though supported by the very powerful jewish lobby in this country that has set double standards for our politicians when it comes to israel and the rest of the world, especially Iran and the arab world. What have we achieved after thirty years of hatred and name calling between our country and Iran? I find President Obama's outreach to Iran to be a great start and I only hope that it will work out in all of our best interests. At this time, we need new markets and what better country to expand our exports while creating jobs and helping our economy. I found your opinion to be callus and useless as you are.

Posted by: worldcitizen09 | March 30, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

You speak very disrespectfully about Iran and its leaders.

Just recall this. The US backed Saddam Hussein with WMD such as biological weapons in its war against Iran. In fact the US wanted and promoted that war in order to destabilise Iraq because it did not like its leadership. Thousands died and the US supported that killing with funds and resources.

The US invaded Iraq on the flimsiest of grounds and it has entered Iran's backyard. I would expect that Iran would tell the US that it is behaving dishonestly and brutally because that is the truth. There isnothing decent about the US's invasion of Iraq just as there was nothing decent about ints invasion of Vietnam.

The US has a long history of covert and overt operations in nations around the world. It causes havoc and death on a regular basis with impunity.

Unl;ike the US, Iran has stayed home and has not invaded other nations. It might make noises and its rhetoric may not appeal to you but it does not kill other people.

The US is arrogant and you are part of that arrogance. If Obama follows your advice he has a recipe for failure and continuing hostilities.

The fact is the US is a bully boy nation and although it invades other nations it leaves them with an unholy mess. If you do not believe me then open up the history books.

The US has been driven by its unwarranted sense of superiority, arrogance and cruelty.

So before you criticise other nations just look at your own dismal record and out things into context.

Oh and by the way, just remember all of the shenanigans that the US has used to bully South America and Central America and ask their peoples if they wanted and enjoyed US interference in their affairs especially when so often they were directed towards protecting the interests of American corporations at the expense of the locals and their right to soveriegnty.

You are just another empty headed American with a big loud mouth who doesn't realise that his foot is stuck inside it.

Posted by: robertjames1 | March 31, 2009 1:40 AM | Report abuse

I have to agree with the previous post by "robertjames1" the U.S. has too often imposed itself on other nations. It is time to stop. Bring all U.S. forces home and withdraw from all other nations, to include foreign aid, military advisers, everything.

However, when these nations start crying for us to come back, we need to remind them that they wanted us out and out means out, it does not mean that we should remove our presence and leave our treasure. Mexico recently asked for U.S. assistance with the drugs and violence issues, now they want CASH, but no U.S. involvement. Sorry Mexico, if you want U.S. help, don't try to dictate to us what when and how that help must be provided.

As for Iran, they should talk to the U.S. on equal terms or not at all.

Posted by: jonweiss1 | March 31, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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