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Obama's Iranian Dilemna

President Obama's insistence on reaching out to Iranian leaders has always rubbed some people the wrong way. But mostly those people were neocons and others who believe -- despite the evidence to the contrary -- that the projection of raw power is the only way to get anywhere with belligerent despots.

Now, however, signs of what might or might not be an incipient revolution in Iran -- and its violent repression -- are making even some Obama supporters start to get a little uncomfortable about the president's outstretched hand. At least right this minute.

Should Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach really apply when they're right in the middle of a brutal anti-democratic repression?

Obama yesterday said he was "deeply troubled" about the election-related violence in Iran. But he said nothing had changed his basic approach:

I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy -- diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries -- is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity.

Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius is pleased:

Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers.

But Fred Kaplan writes for Slate:

Whatever is going on inside Tehran's ruling circles, now is not the time for Obama to engage in outreach. Rather, it's time to up the ante, to make the mullahs—especially those who might be inclined to cast off Ahmadinejad—realize that if they're going to play democracy, they can't rig the deck and violate the will of their people, at least not so blatantly.

And George Packer blogs for the New Yorker:

With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran's cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality—that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America's negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it's in their interest. Right now, they don't appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.

Meanwhile, Mark Landler writes in the New York Times:

With the White House assuming a more central role in dealing with Iran, the Obama administration plans to move its senior Iran policy maker, Dennis B. Ross, to the National Security Council from the State Department, two administration officials said Monday.

By Dan Froomkin  |  June 16, 2009; 2:25 PM ET
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Dan, You have included Pat Buchanan's comment over at town hall. For once i think he has it correctly diagnosed.

Obama is doing precisely the right thing.
US talk to PRC and USSR, no matter the regime and should do similarly with Iran.

US interests may actually be better served by negotiating with current regime rather than Mousavi (think from Iranian viewpoint of Nixon opening up to China).

Posted by: JohnnyCanuck1 | June 16, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Fred Kaplan is, as usual, right. This is the time for bombs, not words. Of course, last month, and last year were also good times for bombs, as will be next month and next year. Actaully, now that I think about it, there just isn't ever a bad time to bomb.

Posted by: dickdata | June 16, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

"Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality"

And right now even Allah hasn't a clear grasp of reality in Iran.

When you don't know one dog in the fight from another, don't try to decide which is your dog and reach in to help it out. Now realy is the time to mumble politely, equivocate, mutter banalities, because the someone who eventual emerges as really in charge is the guy you want to talk to and getting it wrong in this case is making that impossible.

Posted by: ceflynline | June 16, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

The problem with talking to Iran right now is that we have almost no leverage. That allows the little attack dog Ahmadinejad (and his mullah lords) free to thumb his nose at any overture.

Military attack would be politically disastrous without, or possibly even with, some clear provocation. For now, that leaves sanctions. Iran could be strangled by an embargo of its oil exports, but good luck at getting the major customers to sign on, and even better luck at enforcing it.

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 16, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Ahmadinejad would like nothing more than to have Iran's election condemned by the US - except possibly having the US support his opponents. It would have about the same effect as Osama bin Ladin's endorsement would have for a US candidate's electoral chances (remember how the Republicans spun a bin Ladin tape in 2004 as an endorsement for John Kerry?)

If the bank robbers are holding hostages - telling them that you "refuse to negotiate with criminals" won't solve the problem...

Posted by: Common_Sense_Not_Common | June 16, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

So there was an election in Iran with spurious results that we didn't like? Should we stop talking to Iran?

What if there was an election generally judged to be fairly held, where someone was elected we didn't like? Would we stop talking to them? If you are George Bush and the elected people are Hama's you might sacrifice your "democracy agenda" to the wishes of a strong Washington lobbying campaign. I think that was the wrong thing to do.

We don't have to support (and we definately should NOT support) an Iranian government that is mucking around with their own democratic process.

But TALKING to people is NOT supporting them, no matter how much certain conservatives try to dumb down the argument into meaninglessness.

I think the best thing is to do what Obama is doing right now, just wait a bit.

Posted by: BigTimePatriot | June 16, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Anybody who thinks Fred Kaplan's approach is correct hasn't been paying attention the last 8 years. The Bush approach to "isolate" hasn't worked. In what way is Fred Kaplan's approach any different. The US needs to conduct diplomacy in its own interest and should take advantage of any circumstances that exist to promote its advantage. The US should not refrain from conducting diplomacy and negotiations if called for because of the current electoral situation in Iran, regardless of how sympathetic the Opposition is to our values. We may find the Iran regime now believes it has something to gain from negotiations with the US. This doesn't mean we need to sell out the Opposition, it does mean we should do foreign policy in our own interest.

Posted by: ktktk | June 16, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

"The problem with talking to Iran right now is that we have almost no leverage. That allows the little attack dog Ahmadinejad (and his mullah lords) free to thumb his nose at any overture."

Actually, that's his job. He's supposed to thumb his nose at any offer that doesn't seriously consider the security of the Iranian people. Are we in a position to dictate terms? No. Is that a reason not to explore mutual interests? No.

Posted by: fzdybel | June 17, 2009 2:12 AM | Report abuse

Obama is absolutely correct.

First of all the US has no right to meddle in Iranian affairs.

Second this is not about the US. It is an Iranian issue.

Third the CIA organized a coup in 1953 that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had been democratically elected, and installed the Shah remains a sore issue for Iranians.

What about the Iranian people? Shouldn't they be the ones to write their own history? Iam sure if they wanted the US to intervene they would ask.

Those calling for Obama to condemn Iran and say we stand with the Iranian people are the same ones who were pushing Bush to bomb Iran. Did they care about the Iranian people then?

Furthermore it would be premature to say or do something. While there is reason to suspect the vote was rigged, but without solid evidence or proof what exactly is Obama supposed to do?

Moreover if the US took sides or got involved somehow it would look like a fight between Ahmadinejad and the West instead of Ahmadinejad and the opposition.

Jumping in first without thinking about the consequences would be incredibly irresponsible [not to mention stupid].

Then as now there is no evidence or reason to act. To do so would be counterproductive and risk making things a lot worse.

Thankfully we have a President who "gets" it: this is Iran's fight, not ours.

Posted by: serena1313 | June 17, 2009 2:22 AM | Report abuse

Froomkin, could you please tell me what is the "evidence to contrary?" Or are you too just reading from a teleprompter?

Posted by: mmourges | June 17, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

It is pointless for Obama to explicitly side with Mousavi right now. If Ahmadinejad/Khomeini comes out on top (as is likely), then they are going to be even less interested in what the U.S. has to say after we've sided with their opponents. If Mousavi (and Rafsanjani behind the scenes) wins, great, but they likely won't care whether the U.S. explicitly sided with them or not beforehand.

Posted by: zvelf | June 17, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

The obvious solution is to invade Iran. Our troops will be greeted in the streets as liberators, with flowers.

Posted by: Honus | June 17, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

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