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Reading the Tea Leaves: Obama and Iran

Even from President Obama, whose administration’s support for anti-government forces in Iran has been tepid at best, the news of the cutoff of funds for the Human Rights Documentation Center comes as both a shock and a mystery.


It’s a shock because, according to the Boston Globe, the group has been “widely seen as the most comprehensive clearing house of documents related to human rights abuses in Iran,” and it would appear that such work is needed now more than ever. It’s a mystery because no explanation for the denial of the center’s funding request has been given by Harry Edwards, spokesman for the agency responsible for the decision (USAID).

What are we to make of this? Glenn Reynolds writes: “They’re planning a sellout, and data on what the Iranians are doing to their protesters would make it more embarrassing.” But the Globe article that broke the news has a kinder, gentler explanation:

Obama officials have argued publicly for a less-confrontational approach than Bush, in the belief that the Bush administration’s vocal support for democracy activists made them targets in Iran and stirred up fears of regime change.

Let’s take a look at what the organization actually does:

The group has published 12 reports in English and Persian about the forced confessions of detained bloggers and journalists, the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners, and the Iranian government’s campaign to assassinate dissidents abroad. … Currently, the group is working to develop a list of all those who were arrested following the election and a list of those responsible for alleged abuses in prison. But without additional funding, the group will shut down in May when its funding runs out.


One thing that seems clear is that the center’s funding was almost certainly not cut for primarily financial reasons. According to the article, the amount of money involved was $2.7 million in two years, a mere pittance in the scheme of things. And it’s difficult (although far from impossible) to believe that even the Obama administration is naïve enough to think that the Iranians will decrease their decades-long persecution of dissidents just because Obama abandons their cause.

What’s far more likely is that the withdrawal of center funding was designed to be a signal to Iran’s government. What might this act be communicating, other than the weakness of the Obama administration and its tendency to appease repressive governments? It is highly possible that Obama’s intent, at least, is a practical one: that the Iranian leaders perceive there might be something in it for them if they cooperate with Obama. That “something” could come under the general rubric of what used to be known as détente.

This brings us to the work of Ray Takeyh, an Iranian expert who until a month ago had been an advisor on Iran to Dennis Ross, but who left his post when Ross was promoted from the State Department to the White House. Studying the Byzantine maneuverings for power among the different Iran policy advisors to this administration is something like reading tea leaves in the old Kremlin, but it appears that (at least until quite recently) Takeyh’s views may have had influence in the Obama administration.


Back in 2007, Takeyh wrote an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Time for Détente With Iran.” In a 2007 interview in which he discussed the piece, Takeyh said of the Bush administration that “they do want to negotiate, but they haven’t created a context and environment whereby negotiations can take place and negotiations can succeed.”

At the time, Takeyh believed that many of the influential Iranian leaders were essentially pragmatists whose wild rhetoric was mainly for show, and so he went on to describe the “context and environment” that might convince them to negotiate in good faith [emphasis mine]:

If I can make an historical analogy to the ’69-’70 episode with China, which is somewhat instructive, the United States did four things in ’69-’70. It essentially reduced its naval maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. It eased unilaterally all trade and travel restrictions. It essentially tempered its rhetoric. The VOA broadcasts and so forth were no longer incendiary. And Richard Nixon in 1967 wrote a very important Foreign Affairs article calling for detente.

The Obama administration might be following Takeyh’s prescription, with the cutoff of center funding (and the mildness of Obama’s earlier remarks after the travesty of the Iranian elections and the regime’s harsh treatment of demonstrators) being analogous to Nixon’s third tactic, the easing of rhetoric and criticism. This entire approach, however, depends on some huge unknowns: What do the Iranian leaders really want? How serious are their threats, and are they rational actors who can be negotiated with?


Almost everything rides on these questions, and even experts on Iran are just guessing at the answers. But the cost of mistakes could be exceptionally high. Back in the late 30s, for example, the world bargained that Hitler’s threats were mostly hot air and that he was a rational actor who would keep his word. We all know just how well that worked out.

In his détente piece, Takeyh was relying on a reading of Iranian politics as a struggle between extremist hardliners and the pragmatists, with the latter gaining influence. But even if the Obama administration is following his scenario rather than merely flailing about, its actions in withdrawing the center’s funding still represent a large gamble. The idea behind it would appear to be that such Iranian governmental pragmatists exist and are in the ascendance, that they can be successfully negotiated with, that it will pay large dividends to refrain from embarrassing them by calling attention to the regime’s human rights violations, and that none of this will be read as the Obama administration’s weakness and capitulation. That’s a tall order.

Nixon and Kissinger spent years laying the groundwork for détente with the Chinese, through careful behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Whatever one thinks of their politics, or their ultimate success or failure, both men were experienced old hands at foreign relations and diplomacy. The same can hardly be said for their modern-day counterparts, Obama and Hillary Clinton, who give the appearance of being willing to give up much without laying the proper foundation, or any assurance of getting anything in return.


Even Takeyh himself seems to have become more wary of the idea of negotiating with the Iranian regime. In an article written in late September entitled “Beware of Iranians Bearing Talks,” he warns of the disingenuousness of the Iranian leaders, and suggest that U.S. negotiators [emphasis mine] “should insist on discussing several issues: the nuclear program, of course, but also Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its interference in the affairs of its neighbors and its human rights record.”

Which brings us back full circle, to the work of the Human Rights Documentation Center in uncovering the regime’s abysmal record on human rights. The alternative to attempts at détente with the unreliable mullahs and Ahmadinejad would be to make a different gamble: to bet that the current Iranian regime is vulnerable, to encourage the dissenters rather than discourage them, to continue to expose the human rights violations of the government through work such as the center’s, and to push for harsher worldwide sanctions against the Iranian government to give its nuclear brinkmanship sizable negative economic consequences.

One thing — and perhaps one thing only — is certain about Iran, and that is that never before have we faced the potent and dangerous combination of factors it potentially represents: a nuclear-armed state that is at the same time a repressive fundamentalist theocracy at least as concerned with the world to come as the present one. In many respects, the intentions of the Soviet Union and even China were transparency itself compared to those of Iran.


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