Belmont Club

Message to Iran

Tigerhawk listened to President Obama’s appeal to Iran and laid out what he thought were the differences between the current and past administration’s positions. The essential difference was that America no longer wants regime change. It wants behavior change.

Explicitly, President Obama is also addressing the “leaders of the Islamic Republic.” He is telling them that the United States recognizes the current regime’s right to exist, as it were, and that we are only seeking a change in its behavior. Technically, this was also the position of the Bush administration, but with two crucial differences. First, the track record of the Bush administration was such that its claim that it was not seeking to overturn the regime rang hollow to most observers (although not on the hawkish American right, which was outraged by Secretary Rice’s relatively non-confrontational posture).

The other difference is that the Bush administration believed that it needed to sharpen differences between the Iranian people and its regime in order to make progress against the latter’s intransigence, and that public communication with the mullahs would weaken the Iranian opposition rather than strengthen it. The Obama administration apparently believes that (1) the Iranian opposition does not matter, or (2) a more accomodating posture toward the regime will not hurt the opposition. It is not clear which position predominates from the video, but since the President omitted any statement of support for the political or human rights of the Iranian people, a sharp departure from the policies of Bush 43, Bill Clinton, and (for heaven’s sake) Jimmy Carter, I’m going with door number one.

Tigerhawk is probably right about the Iranian opposition being sent out through Door Number 1. The drivers behind the decision to stop fighting the regime in Teheran in exchange for an undertaking of good behavior are probably the European need for natural gas, an ambition to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East (in which Iran’s cooperation will be necessary) and Afghanistan, where logistical difficulties and geopolitical history make it attempting to enlist at least tacit help from Iran. The recent drop in world oil prices may have persuaded Obama’s advisers that now was the time to make their pitch to Iran. Of course the Ayatollahs may also have decided that the current financial crisis makes it a good time to refuse.

While the Obama administration appears to have accepted the existence of the regimes in Syria and Teheran, one wonders what corresponding guarantees have been extended to the existence of the Lebanese government, for example. Does recognizing making nice to Teheran mean that Hezbollah is now an official State-Within-A-State? A permanent cancer in Lebanon? It would be ironic if the opposition (or perhaps insurgent) faction in an friendly country were recognized as untouchable while the domestic opposition to the Ayatollahs was not.

The French and Germans have welcomed Obama’s message. The response of Merkel and Sarkozy to Obama’s initiative was reported in Reuters:

France and Germany, which with Britain have led unsuccessful European Union efforts to persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment, both welcomed the Obama initiative.

“I think the message reflects exactly what the Europeans have always wanted — that an offer is being made to Iran and… (I hope) that this is being used,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at an EU summit in Brussels.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “For my part I remain convinced that with a barrel of Brent (crude oil) well under $50 the policy of sanctions remains relevant, while at the same time there is need for dialogue.”

The linkage between Iran and the Middle East ‘peace process’ was highlighted by AFP, which argued that “President Barack Obama has made a deft overture to Iran in a videotaped message that could pave the way to ending three decades of bad blood with the United States, experts say. In opening up to Iran, Obama has his eye on bringing peace and stability to Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as fighting the spread of nuclear weapons, they add.” Lebanese politics, always sensitive to which way the international wind blows, may now be wondering whether to do deals with the Hezbollah. In that country, survival is the first priority, this may signal the need to reshuffle the political cards. The Lebanese Daily Star says “Obama has fired the starter’s gun in the season of engagement”.

The implications of this tentative courtship between Washington and Tehran might already be spilling over to Lebanon, which is preparing for a round of parliamentary elections in June. We can monitor the leaders of Lebanon’s rival camps and their rhetoric, to gauge the changing times. If the rhetoric cools down in Lebanon, we can assume that using an “agenda of accusation” is not going to be the operative strategy for the election campaign. This will mean room for a third party to enter the fray and stake out its own place, as the mobilization of voters for a battle between “good and evil” cools off.

But it’s also important to notice who is not talking to whom. There is the idea that not talking to Israel effectively sends it a message. By firing the ‘starting gun of engagement’, Obama has now put Israel in the path of his engagement bulldozer. Hezbollah knows that although everybody claims to want to negotiate, the essential thing is not to negotiate with Israel.

Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem said President Michel Sleiman had “done well” by rejecting France’s suggestion that Lebanon should talk with Israel, “since we have nothing to discuss.” … He said European and non-European countries were stretching out their hands to Hezbollah and were trying to build relations with it. Qassem attributed the development in its international relations to the Resistance’s existence, popularity and “great victories.”

The New York Times reports that Israel is facing increasing isolation because of its decision to go into Gaza.

JERUSALEM — Israel, whose founding idea was branded as racism by the United Nations General Assembly in 1975 and which faced an Arab boycott for decades, is no stranger to isolation. But in the weeks since its Gaza war, and as it prepares to inaugurate a hawkish right-wing government, it is facing its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades.

Examples abound. Its sports teams have met hostility and violent protests in Sweden, Spain and Turkey. Mauritania has closed Israel’s embassy.

Relations with Turkey, an important Muslim ally, have suffered severely. A group of top international judges and human rights investigators recently called for an inquiry into Israel’s actions in Gaza. “Israel Apartheid Week” drew participants in 54 cities around the world this month, twice the number of last year, according to its organizers. And even in the American Jewish community, albeit in its liberal wing, there is a chill.

As in Lebanon, the international winds are blowing through Israeli domestic politics. CNN reports that Netanyahu is still struggling to find coalition partners for his government. So what does it all mean? Get on the bus, Bibi, before it leaves the station. Nail down some part of Israel or maybe risk it all.

“With the surge of other right-wing parties, Netanyahu had enough seats to form a government. But he needed the cooperation of Labor or Kadima to fulfill his promise “to form a broad national unity government.” Tzipi Livni, Kadima’s leader, said, when rejecting Netanyahu’s invitation to join the government, that the main sticking point was his refusal to commit to negotiations with the Palestinians that would lead to a Palestinian state.

From one point of view, Obama’s message to Iran less reflect’s Teheran’s weakness than his own. The Ayatollah’s have probably suspected for a long time that Obama was going to be all carrot and no stick. Secure in this knowledge, they’re going to hold out for more because their downside is distinctly limited. And they already have. The AP reports an initial rejection of Obama’s overture. “The Iranian government brushed aside a Persian New Year’s message Friday from President Barack Obama offering to resolve years of hostility, saying it wants concrete change from Washington before it’s ready to enter a dialogue.” Teheran needs further goodies. And the probability is that they’ll get them. After all, Hamas has gotten its $900 million. What of the Iranian opposition and those who’ve resisted Hezbollah? What of those who’ve resisted Hamas? What part of “we’ve won” don’t they understand?