Gerecht, Ignatius: Iran Engagement Has Worked

I don’t really want to bother too much with Bill Kristol’s comical assertion, in his latest Weekly Standard editorial on Iran, that Iran’s pro-democracy movement should be credited to George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” It’s abundantly clear that Bush’s attempt to transform the Middle East at the point of an American gun bolstered Iranian hardliners and undercut Iranian reformers, as it undercut pro-American democrats throughout the region. But amid the usual dog’s breakfast of who-cares mendacity and smug point-scoring, Kristol gives us a passage that neatly demonstrates how the poor guy either just doesn’t get it, or just doesn’t care:

President Obama said early last week that he had “bent over backwards” to engage Iran. So he has. We’re lucky we haven’t paid a heavier price for this foolish policy. One that seems to have been driven by an odd combination of vanity and weakness. It would be good if the president now stood up straight and put the American government unambiguously and energetically on the side of the Iranians demonstrating against a dictatorship.

With all due respect to Lefty Gomez, and to the admittedly large role of fortune in human affairs — it’s nice to be lucky, but it’s safer to be strong.

Interestingly, Kristol’s view of the president’s “vanity and weakness” on Iran is contradicted elsewhere in his own magazine this week. In a piece on the implications of reform movement for Iran and the region, Reuel Marc Gerecht acknowledges that “President Obama could rightly claim that his outreach policy toward the Islamic Republic helped create the tumult that we’ve seen since June 12.”

Obviously, the Green movement is not Obama’s doing, it belongs to the people of Iran. But his approach has clearly had an effect. For a magazine dedicated primarily to the proposition that “freedom rides down on American bombs,” this recognition of the concrete benefits of engagement and smart diplomacy should be considered hugely significant, and Gerecht deserves credit for writing it. Far more than Bush’s belligerent speechmaking and Cheney’s refusal to “negotiate with evil,” Obama’s outreach has placed the onus squarely on the Iranian government, and put them in a more difficult position both in regard to Iranian domestic politics and the international community’s demands on Iran’s nuclear program.

In his column yesterday, David Ignatius explored this dynamic a bit more fully, writing that “White House officials argue that their strategy of engagement has been a form of pressure, and the evidence supports them”:

Compared with a year ago, Iran is far more divided internally; it has lost much of its legitimacy within the Muslim world, with the regional balance of power tipping the other way for the first time in years; and it is more isolated internationally, no longer able to count on Russia as a reliable patron.

Obama’s outstretched hand makes sense because it subverts Iran’s best propaganda weapon. Without the Great Satan to blame, the Iranians have been accident-prone. Recall the diplomats’ admonition: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” That argues for a continued open door to Iran.

Outreach is pressure. Outreach is strength. I think Ignatius identifies a good approach here, one which I also wrote about the other day, neither strictly “realism” nor “regime change,” but one that continues to attempt to engage Iran over its nuclear program while also trying to create space for the Greens by continually making clear our support for Iranian human rights and democracy.

This approach may not be “strong” in the way that Bill Kristol prefers, it doesn’t involve enough big, bold speeches or enough American ordnance dropped, but it’s how a responsible and confident superpower acts.