To Engage Iran

Stephen Walt has a post up this afternoon reacting to a report from John Tirman at MIT, which suggests that rather than try to change the dynamic of U.S.-Iranian relations in an incremental fashion, as seems to be the current thinking of the Administration, U.S. leaders would do well to try a grander, more dramatic approach. Tirman basically argues that the obstacles to improving the relationship between Washington and Tehran are as much about process as they are about a stark divergence of interests (though such conflicts certainly exist), and that a dramatic move by American leaders, analogous to Nixon’s visit to China or Sadat’s address to the Israeli Knesset, could be a game changer.

I’d encourage readers to take a look at Tirman’s document. It has a host of interesting recommendations. On the face of it, they seem fairly logical to me. The key is that the United States, which is a global superpower, really has very little to lose from opening up to Iran. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but the current American approach has been an undeniable failure, and it’s not as though the U.S. doesn’t have the strength or wherewithal to keep from getting rolled by Iran.

The problem, of course, is that while the risks to the United States as a whole might be fairly small, the risks to the Obama Administration are quite large. Many analysts and commentators have made the point that the level of acrimony between Iran and the United States exceeds reason, and that both countries would benefit from a more normalized relationship. The problem, of course, is that thirty years of fairly high-profile conflict have affected the way these two nations view each other, both at popular and elite levels. Americans of an age to remember it (those older than I, admittedly) still view Iran through the lens of the hostage crisis and the humiliation that the Iranian revolutionaries were able to inflict on a United States that was seemingly impotent in the face of a few Persian university students with guns. The years of acrimony since then, and the further divisions created by Iran’s very public flouting of America’s insistence that it curtail its nuclear ambitions, have not helped soften the country’s image.

When this reality (justified or not) is combined with a political establishment of which significant segments view the Iranian regime as hopelessly irrational, messianic, fanatical and even suicidal, the potential for real political costs to any Administration that goes out on a limb to make some links to Tehran becomes great, particularly if the Iranians don’t reciprocate.

I’m not saying this is a reason that Obama shouldn’t reach out to the Iranians. I think there are real ways in which U.S.-Iranian relations could be improved to the benefit of everyone involved. It has to be recognized, though, that it’s a tougher and riskier task than might be obvious at first blush.