Obama’s Strategic Outreach

khamenei-khomeini.jpegLaura Secor’s article on Obama’s new Iranian charm offensive makes a very good argument for the U.S. offering to take regime change off the table in anticipation of talks. While noting that Iran’s rulers have “no more urgent interest than the regime’s own survival,” Secor recognizes the way that the regime’s “anti-American and anti-Israeli stances bind the hardliners to their small but loyal and heavily armed constituency, and they furnish a pretext for domestic repression.”

To give up this trump card–the non-relationship with the United States, the easy evocation of an external bogeyman–would be costly for the Iranian leadership. It would be a Gorbachevian signal that the revolution is entering a dramatically new phase–one Iran’s leaders cannot be certain of surviving in power.

The Bush administration got this dynamic all wrong when it insisted that Iran meet preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. The working assumption was that the lure of talks with the United States would be powerful enough to impel the Iranians to make a major concession. But what if talking to the United States is itself a concession — perhaps one of the toughest for the Iranians to make? That puts us in the very different, far less advantageous position of needing to offer Iran something it truly wants–like a security guarantee–up front. That’s appeasement, critics might object: How can we give up our trump card right at the outset? It looks bad if you think of it as unilateral disarmament. It looks less bad if you consider that the very act of entering direct talks with us means something for the Iranian regime that it doesn’t mean for us.

This is an important re-framing of the “more ideological than pragmatic?” debate that Secor notes has tended to dominate the U.S. debate over Iran policy. Like Secor, I think the evidence weighs strongly against the idea that Iran is interested in committing suicide, but there’s still a question of whether the very act of formally negotiating with the United States — and thus abandoning a central pillar of state ideology, anti-Americanism — could itself represent an unacceptable form of “regime change” for Khamenei.

In the end, Obama’s Iran outreach may simply not work, but it could effectively demonstrate to the Iranian people and others that the Great Satan is not the recalcitrant party. As newly-minted administration ally Robert Kagan wrote the other day, what’s the harm in trying?