US sugarcoats its tough line on Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The administration of United States President Barack Obama may be reviewing its
policy toward Iran, but already it has settled on key aspects of predecessor
George W Bush's Iran policy and, to a lesser extent, Bush's demonization of
Tehran, thus setting itself up for another round of failed US foreign policy.
This much can be surmised by scrutinizing the major foreign policy speech
delivered by US Vice President Joseph Biden at the 45th Munich Security
Conference over the weekend,
dominated by the issues of Russia, Iran, energy security, proliferation and
disarmament, (although the latter was hardly mentioned throughout the
Although the US media have focused on Biden's "conciliatory" gesture and his
statement that the US is "willing to talk to Iran", the devil is in the details
and a careful deconstruction of Biden's security narrative leaves no doubt that
the administration is short in the supply of fresh thinking on global issues.
Biden's speech was interlaced with positive, even promising, lights about a new
White House regime that seeks to set a "new tone" in "America's relations
around the world" that does not follow "zero-sum modalities and rigid
ideologies". It is no longer saddled by "clash of civilizations" crusade
mentality, as was the case with its predecessor, and it seeks a multilateral
approach to solving the world's thorny issues. He even identified the growing
gap between the world's rich and poor as one of the main security challenges,
along with the threat of "radical fundamentalism", proliferation and terrorism
as the main challenges confronting the world.
But for Biden's conciliatory note to have real bite it must be accompanied by a
frank admission of past US errors toward Iran and of Iran s constructive role
in regional security issues, otherwise it will culminate in more of the same.
Biden spoiled his opportunity by shying away from introducing the elements of
any major re-orientation from the Bush legacy - on such important issues as the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia and Iran.
Thus, on NATO, instead of even hinting at a post-Cold War approach of alliance,
Biden limited himself to the idea of re-invigorating NATO, this despite the
fact that some Obama advisors on foreign policy, such as Ivo Daadler, have
begun to feebly talk about a "global NATO" that would transcend its present
Western-centric alliance structure. This means that Russia in particular should
not expect a great deal from the upcoming meeting of the Russia-NATO Council,
except incremental improvement way short of a full embrace of Moscow into
The Russians are eager to improve ties with Washington after a disastrous year
in relations in 2008 due to the conflict in Georgia and the more recent gas
crisis involving disruptions in Russia's supply of gas to Europe via Ukraine.
This is why Moscow wasted little time in announcing during the Munich
conference that it was assisting with NATO's supply lines to Afghanistan, a
gesture they could well afford after Kyrgyzstan's closure of the US air base
there that, in effect, leaves the US and NATO much more beholden to Moscow for
sustaining their supply routes to Afghanistan. This is unless Iran steps in and
allows a NATO corridor through its territory, which depends entirely on the
evolution of US-Iran relations in the near term.
Unfortunately, Biden's statements on Iran lead one to be highly skeptical that
a major breakthrough in the hardened US-Iran relations may be on the horizon.
Lacking any positive appreciation of Iran's stability role in the region, Biden
reiterated Obama's inaugural negative image of Iran as basically an adversary
with "clenched fists" toward the US, thus disregarding the conciliatory
gestures of Iran's rulers in recent months.
Biden went on to sing the old tune of ultimatum to Iran - disband your nuclear
program and stop supporting terrorism and gain "incentives" or otherwise face
increasing "pressure and isolation". This was followed by another section
dealing with America's resolve to use all the tools of "hard" and "soft" power
to pursue its interests, a veiled reference to the military option against
Not only that, Biden made it clear that his administration would continue with
the controversial US defense shield in Europe to "counter the growing Iranian
missile capability", an announcement that prompted a quick reply by the Russian
parliamentary speaker, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who stated his
government's categorical opposition to the US move - considered as a part of
"US strategic infrastructure" aimed at Russia's "nuclear missile potential".
Thus the question: is the Obama administration simply sowing the seeds of the
next war by pursuing a "smart" policy of offering carrots and sticks to Russia?
One carrot is the possibility of freezing the stick of missile defense in
Eastern Europe, in exchange for Russia's cooperation on Iran. And, if not, why
does the administration continue with a Manichean enemy image of Iran, even
though it is seeking Iran's assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is the
US's and NATO's "highest priority"? Some call this a "strategic dilemma", but
it is one entirely handmade by the policy-makers in Washington, rather than a
Gordian knot that can't be broken.
At the Munich conference, NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer talked
about a "general atmosphere of mistrust prevailing against Moscow". Wasn't this
also the case with Washington until a precious couple of months ago, now
dissipated by the extraordinary gesture of goodwill toward Obama world-wide?
Sadly, there are strong signs that the US will squander this golden
opportunity, simply by maintaining continuity with important past US policies.
This, as a result, will perpetuate the image of the Obama administration as a
new face of US hegemony, unless deeper and more meaningful changes in foreign
policy are introduced signaling a paradigm shift. That does not seem to be in
the cards however, and Biden's speech made that clear, with the partial
exception of his oblique reference to a "bargain" with Iran.
Grand bargain with Iran?
"That is the bargain we seek. Such a bargain can be at the heart of our
collective efforts to convince Iran to forego the development of nuclear
weapons," Biden said at the Munich conference in an implicit embrace of the
"grand bargain" approach championed by some in Washington.
Using China as a role model, the proponents of this approach want the US to use
secret diplomacy guided by the White House to reach a comprehensive tackling of
all the main issues on the US-Iran plate, just as the US did with China under
president Richard Nixon. Fair enough, but that would require vetoing the
enormous clout of the Jewish lobby in Washington that wants US power used to
defang the Islamic Republic.
Also, it means narrowing the huge gaps in threat perceptions between Washington
and Tehran - an important prerequisite for cooperation on regional stability
issues. A case in point is the US intent on convincing Iran to stop its support
for Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas in Palestine.
In his Munich speech, Biden clarified that any US aid for the reconstruction of
Gaza would go "to the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas". Clearly, the
administration is not keen on the technical question that Hamas is a part of
the Palestinian Authority, and such divisive actions that ignore the popularity
of Hamas in Gaza do not advance the US's peace mission in the Middle East. US
Middle East envoy George Mitchell also avoided Hamas leaders in his recent tour
of the region.
The US would have to talk directly with Hamas if it were genuinely interested
in turning the leaves in the stalled Middle East peace talks, period.
Otherwise, it would be simply appeasing right-wing Israeli leaders who, unlike
what Biden said about the "two-state solution" for Palestine, have no such
In addition to the Israel-Palestinian and Israel-Hezbollah conflicts, the gap
between the US and Iran remains wide on Afghanistan, where the US and NATO are
deluding themselves that they can count on Iran's support, so "we can grow
stronger against you", to paraphrase a Tehran political analyst.
Clearly, that does not wash and the powerful presentation by Iran's
parliamentary speaker at the conference, Ali Larijani, heading a parliamentary
delegation, left no doubt that Iran is not melting its resistance against
foreign intervention in its vicinity simply as a result of "new rhetoric" by
While urging the White House to "rebuild broken bridges", Larijani attacked
misguided past US policies in the region, including US support for Iraq's
invasion of Iran in 1980 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under false
pretences, and the absence of any real progress in the fight against extremism
and narcotics traffic in Afghanistan. Larijani at the same time emphasized the
need for collective security arrangements and "localized" security cooperation
without foreign intervention.
In his mix of tough and conciliatory gestures, Larijani made a point of
praising Obama's dispatch of a Middle East envoy (Mitchell) to the region as a
positive step, and this stood in sharp contrast with Biden's speech that simply
complained of Iran's misbehavior in the region and lacked any reference to
Tehran's legitimate security concerns.
The absence of reciprocity on Biden's part, when combined with his wholly
negative portrayal of Iran's role in the region, beguiling the reality of
Iran's cooperation on Afghanistan in particular, must be disquieting for those
hoping for the dawn of a non-dogmatic and flexible US policy toward Iran.
Any grand bargain with Iran is a tall order that assumes that the structural
conflict between an assertive regional power insistent on regional autonomy on
the one hand and an intrusive superpower apt to a "proxy war" on Israel's
behalf can be somehow resolved by the nuances of a clever bargaining formula.
By placing the goals so high, Washington may be setting itself up for
frustration. For now, at least, it is better to concentrate on incremental
confidence-building steps, and the Munich conference itself served such a
purpose by allowing an unfettered exchange of perspectives, and a moratorium on
incendiary rhetoric and slogans is now called for.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.