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New Iranian President; Same Old US Approach

By reflexively calling to maintain or increase sanctions on Iran, Washington commentators are helping to sully any opportunity to open a dialogue with Iran's newly elected president, even as the U.S. faces regional challenges in Syria and Afghanistan that could be mitigated by cooperation with Tehran.

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Twenty-five years ago, on July 3, 1998, the USS Vincennes, operating in the Persian Gulf, shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all 290 people on board. Debate continues about why this happened. Misidentification of the Iranian aircraft? A series of mistakes by senior officers on board the Vincennes? Iran Air Flight 655 being in the wrong place at the wrong time given that a (minor) skirmish was then taking place between some US and Iranian surface vessels?

One explanation, to which I personally subscribed at the time (having, of course, no direct information) was that the psychology of demonizing all things Iranian had taken hold of those responsible on the Vincennes for the decision to shoot. I reasoned that the drumbeat of anti-Iranian sentiment that was affecting the general American public had spilled over to the Vincennes, leading to the expectation that Iran’s forces would act in a hostile manner — thus, when its radars lit up, a threat was on the horizon.

This debate will no doubt carry on (for a detailed point-counterpoint, see here). But the same climate of demonizing all things Iranian continues to hold much of the US government in its grip, virtually to the very top, as well as a large fraction of the “commentariat” in Washington and elsewhere.

This assessment is certainly accurate regarding a large fraction of responses, from inside and outside the Obama administration, to the June 14 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. A chorus of US skeptics have predictably dismissed even the slight possibility that Rouhani’s win might produce a shift in Iranian behavior or its nuclear negotiating stance. The initial White House response was at best lukewarm, if not downright back-handed, though three days later, President Obama did express “cautious optimism that with a new election there, we may be able to move forward on a dialogue that allows us to resolve the problems with Iran’s nuclear program.”

Striking, however, has been the heavy emphasis in US commentary on maintaining all the current sanctions imposed on Iran, if not making them stronger — with nary a nod to the potential of the new Iranian president, however problematic at this point, by marking his surprising election with even tiny sanctions relief. Dennis Ross, Middle East advisor to the last three presidents, counseled in the New York Times “…it would be foolish to think that lifting the pressure now would improve the chances that [Rouhani] would be allowed [by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei] to offer us what we need.”

Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee called for even tougher sanctions, urging Obama “…to increase the pressure on Iran in the days ahead.”

So much for trying to test the new Iranian president or showing the Iranian people that the US understands the stress that US-led sanctions have put them under, along with any hope that the US will try something different to see if the long-running impasse with the Iranian government can be broken.

Policy thus confounds the White House spokesman’s “[congratulation of the Iranian people] for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard.”

Of course, the negative — or at best indifferent — US government response to Rouhani’s election might just be tactics preceding any future negotiations as well part of the reality that the new Iranian president must respect the wishes (read: veto) of the Supreme Leader. But as a way of making successful talks with Iran more difficult, if not impossible, it’s hard to imagine a better deal-breaker than the cacophony of dismissals of Rouhani’s election and the calls for more sanctions.

Given what else is happening in the Middle East, it is also surprising that the Obama administration is not looking for at least some way to ease its regional problems.

Syria is in civil war, as part of a growing conflict across the region that is pitting Sunnis against Shias (politics and religion), with Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel in a many-cornered tug-of-war for regional predominance (geopolitics). The first stage of the post-Mubarak era in Egypt has collapsed in violence and, while its peace treaty with Israel has not yet been called into question, what is happening in Cairo is not confidence-inspiring in Jerusalem. The US Secretary of State doggedly pursues the faint hope of significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front instead of tending to the other, more insistent crises, while US standing in the region and its reputation for effective leadership has not taken such a blow since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A major part of the problem is that the Obama administration, like its two predecessors, has not yet adjusted to the consequences of the Cold War’s end: the (relative) diminution of US power and influence, the rise of cultural, regional and religious factors that were largely suppressed during the US-Soviet confrontation, and the rising expectations of a new generation. It seems unable to consider all the elements of this complex region together and develop coherent policies that have a chance of succeeding.

For Washington and the US think-tank community, victory over the Soviet Union seemed to mean that there was less need to think strategically, when in fact, the opposite has proved to be true. A similar lesson has not yet been learned regarding the need for the US government, beginning in the White House, to recruit and employ a top-class team of experts, analysts, strategists and diplomats.

Until George W. Bush described Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002, the US and Iran had a common interest in trammeling the Taliban in Afghanistan. They could again, as the US and its allies now head towards an exit. Both countries have an interest in protecting the flow of oil in and from the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz, as well as in stopping piracy in the Arabian Sea. No one can benefit from a war involving Iran over its nuclear program or for any other reason. And, whether we are prepared to realize it or not, a large majority of Iranians, all of whom are literate and a large fraction of whom are middle class and well-educated, are sick of the Islamic Revolution and would like to find an alternative so they can get on with their lives and be part of the outside world, including the Western world, with all its attractions.

The “first law of holes,” the old political saying goes, is that “when you are in a hole, stop digging.” The US is in a hole in the Middle East that is getting deeper by the day. While the Iranian election may not usher in — yet — an era when that corner of the region can be less of a headache for Washington, the US must “stop digging”. It’s time to explore what can happen with Iran’s next president instead of simply working to make matters worse with more of the same sanctions, isolation, opprobrium and once again reflexive demonizing of all things Iranian.

Robert Hunter is the Chairman of the Council for a Community of Democracies since 2002 and, serves on the Academic Advisory Board at the NATO Defense College (Rome).

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