Obama’s ‘Game Changing’ Iran Diplomacy

34497992.jpgThere are a couple of key points to draw from the reports that the Obama administration is planning to drop a long-standing U.S. demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a pre-condition for talks. The first is that, while the Obama administration has not dropped enrichment suspension as a goal, they seem to have grasped the basic idea that you’re more likely to get your adversary to give up something he values by talking to him and offering incentives than you are by insisting that he give it up in exchange for talking in the first place.

The second is that the Obama administration has understood the extent to which the Bush-Cheney approach to Iran — in which talking to one’s enemies was itself seen as a form of appeasement — essentially gave a free pass to the Iranian regime. As John Lee Anderson writes in the New Yorker, “it was easy for [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to argue that President Bush was not interested in anything but a hostile relationship with Iran.”

Obama’s [Nowruz] message was “a game-changer,” Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “Now the U.S. has come out with an extraordinarily different kind of message, one that is warm, and seems sincere about engaging with Iran. So the Iranians now will ask of their government, why aren’t you engaging?” Nasr added, “Obama has cleverly created a debate between the Iranian people and their leaders, and within the leadership itself — and also, because this comes just three months before the elections, made it a campaign issue.”

As CAP analyst Andrew Grotto wrote last May, moving toward greater engagement with the Iranian government “would clarify the choice being presented to the Iranian nation by the international community: the poverty and isolation that extremism brings, or the prosperity and global respect that Iran would enjoy if it adopted a more constructive foreign policy.” Iran’s conservatives would very much prefer that that choice not be clarified.

The Bush administration’s approach to Iran — typified by Dick Cheney’s ideologically hidebound insistence that “we don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it” — was not only a propaganda gift to Iran’s conservative hardliners, it both confirmed and mirrored their own worldview. By steadily reorienting the U.S. approach to Iran and making it abundantly clear both to the Iranian people and the world that America is not the recalcitrant party, President Obama is putting the onus on Iran’s hardliners to justify their own intransigence. He’s also taking away one of President Ahmadinejad’s most treasured propaganda tools — fear of an aggressive, threatening America — months before Iranians go to the polls to choose a new president.