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Obama in Tehran? Not Just Yet

By Michael Lumbers

What a difference a phone call makes. Disappointment over the handshake-that-never-was swiftly gave way to hope for the future when Barack Obama called his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, for a 15-minute conversation as he wrapped up his outreach blitz in New York City. The call marked the first direct communication between the two countries’ presidents since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. With expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program once again running high, some commentators have seen fit to draw a parallel to the Nixon administration’s historic opening to China, a classic example of Realpolitik creating strange bedfellows. Feeding these hopes, Obama teased that a nuclear deal “could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship…one based on mutual interests and mutual respect...[which] could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.” 

Considering the relevancy of the opening to China for current Iranian-American diplomacy is instructive. Assuming a way can be found to trade a curtailment of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities for an easing of crippling economic sanctions, could such a bargain yield a wider rapprochement between Washington and Tehran? The unlikelihood of such a development in the foreseeable future says much about Obama’s limited room for maneuverability in foreign affairs in light of the complex security challenges confronting the country and political gridlock at home.

Forty years ago, China presented many of the same challenges as Iran does to American policymakers today : a regime that preached hatred of the U.S. to its people, worked to subvert its neighbors and undermine America’s regional influence, furnished vital support to insurgents in a war that had drained U.S. blood and treasure, and stirred bipartisan hostility.

Playing the China card, however, offered strategic and political benefits that would not materialize from any gambit toward Iran. Richard Nixon’s interest in restoring relations with Beijing stemmed primarily from fear of an even greater geopolitical rival: the Soviet Union. By the time he assumed the presidency in January 1969, the USSR had achieved nuclear parity with the U.S. and vigorously competed for global influence. The challenge facing Nixon was how to offset the Soviet threat when the war in Vietnam had overstretched American resources and sapped voters’ support of militarized containment and far-flung security commitments. Adhering to the time-honored diplomatic maxim that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he appreciated that engaging Moscow’s rival for leadership of the communist world would unnerve the Kremlin and constrain any risk-taking behavior.

For a president looking to lower America’s profile in the Middle East after a decade of fruitless war and to rebalance resources toward the Asia-Pacific, Obama would find obvious advantages to a modus vivendi with Iran. Yet the strategic context of 2013 bears no comparison to that of 1972. A mutual interest in containing the USSR provided the hardheaded rationale for the Sino-American opening.  Today, there is no common adversary pushing Washington and Tehran closer together. The U.S. currently faces no peer competitor that Iran could help balance, as threats to its influence are regional in nature.

In the Middle East, Iran represents to U.S. policymakers what the Soviet Union did on a global scale at the height of the Cold War. It stands at the nexus of all of America’s regional troubles by way of its support for terrorism, its patronage of Hezbollah and Hamas, its firm military and diplomatic backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war, its capacity to play spoiler in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its nuclear program possibly triggering a destabilizing arms race. These pressure tools are employed by Tehran both as a means of self-preservation against the threat of American force and of showcasing its role as a major player in Middle East politics. These two core objectives make it highly unlikely that Tehran will ever give them up.

The demands of alliance management will act as a further brake on U.S. dealings with Iran. While stressing the need for a smaller American footprint in the Middle East, Obama has recently found it necessary to demonstrate America’s staying power there. And while Soviet anxieties over Sino-American reconciliation enabled Nixon to gain leverage over the Kremlin, the suspicions engendered by the prospect of warming Iranian-American ties undermine U.S. efforts to shore up relations with Israel and Persian Gulf allies. The timing of the opening to China certainly caught America’s Asian allies by surprise, but many of them had already expanded links to the mainland; by contrast, Washington’s partners in the Middle East espouse rigid vigilance toward Iran.

Nixon’s China initiative was also aided immeasurably by an auspicious political climate, which is lacking in Obama’s case. By the late 1960s, the political imperative of projecting toughness toward Beijing had been overtaken by the need to burnish one’s peace credentials to a war-weary electorate, as Republicans and Democrats alike offered ideas for a new relationship with China. The once formidable “China Lobby,” which worked to ensure that Washington recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Taiwan as the only legitimate Chinese government, had lost its ability to mobilize popular opinion behind its cause. The staunchly anti-communist Nixon could ruthlessly sacrifice Taiwan’s interests for the sake of courting the mainland without fearing much in the way of political retribution.

Obama enjoys no such luxury at home. Like all second-term residents of the White House, he may seek to cement his legacy abroad as his domestic agenda is increasingly stymied on Capitol Hill; a dramatic breakthrough with Iran would net him the sort of diplomatic coup about which most presidents can only dream. A rapprochement, however, would require Congressional repeal or scaling back of the intricate web of economic sanctions it has enacted against Iran over the years. No two issues promote greater bipartisanship today than America’s stalwart defense of Israel and maintaining an economic stranglehold on Iran. Congressional Democrats, who are determined to thwart Republican efforts to make inroads with Jewish voters and have recently displayed willingness to defy Obama on a number of issues, are not inclined to sacrifice core political interests on behalf of a president who won’t be running again for re-election. 

Obama’s premature confinement to lame-duck status, moreover, undermines his leverage abroad. Mao Zedong could negotiate confidently with Nixon, knowing that he was coasting to re-election and would be in a position to deliver what he promised. A marginalized Obama, unable even to rally support in Congress for a limited missile strike against Syria or to prevent a government shutdown, will limit Rouhani’s enthusiasm for making risky compromises, as he faces his own uphill struggle in balancing Iran’s rapprochement with the West and his need to placate powerful hardline clerics wary of U.S. intentions.

A limited deal that reduces Iran’s enrichment activities may still result from this round of maneuvering, but the strategic and political stars are aligned against a grand bargain. Obama will not be flying to Tehran to create his own Beijing moment.




Michael Lumbers is author of Piercing the Bamboo Curtain: Tentative Bridge Building to China During the Johnson Years and a senior analyst for Wikistrat.


[Photo by Kamyar Adl]


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