Looking over President Obama’s evolving Iran policy over the last year, I don’t think the president and his team have gotten nearly enough credit for how they’ve calibrated an approach, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, designed to undercut both the Iranian regime’s international and domestic propaganda, by insisting on the possibility of a deal, and the effect that his has had of exacerbating divisions among Iran’s ruling elite.
In remarks last week at the Institute for the Study of War, Gen. David Petraeus commented on these divisions, saying that while the diplomacy has intensified with Iran, the international engagement “has been complicated probably a bit just because of the preoccupation of Iran with its internal affairs.”
I mean, there are literally organizations within Iran that just, frankly, haven’t met the way they used to, certain of the important Iranian security bodies and advisory bodies that help the Supreme Leader and so forth, because — in some cases because of internal divisions among the senior members of these different groups. So that has made things more difficult, I suspect, as well.
In a late December article on the state of the administration’s engagement approach, Glenn Kessler reported the view of administration that officials that “the apparent turmoil it generated within the Iranian leadership is a useful side benefit of engagement.
The effort to engage “has had an unsettling effect on people in the regime,” one official said. “It has made it more difficult to demonize the United States and say it has been the root of all evil.”
It’s important not to overplay the extent of U.S. influence on Iran, but it’s important not to underplay it, either. We shouldn’t imagine that saying or doing X pulls a corresponding X lever in Iranian policy, but given the central place the United States occupies in the Iranian regime’s strategic and ideological perspective, there’s no doubt that U.S. policy and rhetoric have an effect.
It almost certainly had an effect during the Bush administration — a very bad one. In 2007 article, Barbara Slavin, now the foreign affairs editor of the Washington Times, wrote that Bush’s hardline policy toward Iran had had the effect of “boosting Iranian hardliners who argue that the Bush administration has no interest in reconciling with Iran and that Tehran’s best course is to reach bomb capacity as soon as possible.”
It’s no surprise, then, that U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq finally began in May this year  in an atmosphere so fraught with hostility over sanctions and the nuclear issue that little has come of them. Iran, meanwhile, has refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program as demanded by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a precondition for broad negotiations. A top aide to Ahmadinejad recently told me that the Iranians think Rice is lying when she says she will meet with Iran “anywhere, anytime” if Iran suspends enrichment. The Bush administration, this official said, has no interest in serious negotiations with Iran. You can hardly blame him or other Iranians for thinking this way.
President Obama deserves credit for raising doubts in the minds of a number of Iranians who think this way. He also deserves credit for resisting calls to explicitly enlist the U.S. in the Iranian opposition, which would effectively restore the “foreign stooges” propaganda tool that Iran’s hardliners are clearly desperate to have back, but that Obama’s approach has denied them. It’s been a judicious use of American power, one that recognizes the limits of America’s ability to influence events inside Iran, but also that America’s posture does have an impact on Iran’s politics.