Iran Tests Obama’s Engagement Strategy

Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iranian Opposition Leader (click to enlarge)

During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama promised to engage America’s enemies. This essentially meant to approach such states as Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela and restart diplomatic initiatives. Conservatives attacked Obama for this but it must be said that what Obama proposed in theory is what U.S. presidents do all the time: talk to our enemies.

The classic example is Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam War. Kissinger’s strategy was to draw close to the Soviets and the Chinese in order to isolate the North Vietnamese. The strategy worked because when Nixon bombed North Vietnam, he was even able to bomb Hanoi without provoking Soviet or Chinese retaliation. Eventually, the North caved and this permitted the U.S. to pull its combat troops out of South Vietnam in 1973. Of course, Kissinger’s talks were in secret. Maybe that is the big difference. In any case, Obama’s strategy of diplomatic engagement does look good in theory.

Consider what has happened so far. The president gave a key foreign policy speech in Cairo on June 4. The speech extended the proverbial olive branch to the Islamic world, including Iran. More recently, Iranian officials were invited to the U.S. for the July 4rth holiday. Since then the unexpected has happened. The Iranian election proved to be a pivotal moment. The opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, lost the election. His supporters believed the election count was a complete sham and took to the streets in mass protest. Last Friday (June 19), Iran’s supreme leader warned of a coming crackdown against all those who continue to protest the elections, or the Mousavi supporters. The crackdown over the last several days has been severe. One of the most interesting stories to surface in the crackdown is about a young Iranian woman named Neda Agha-Soltan who was brutally killed (see story).

Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan was killed during election protests (photo source unknown)

What have the Iran’s elections meant for President Obama? They have been an ill-timed fiasco and have seriously complicated the president’s engagement strategy for Iran. This has occurred because the election fallout highlighted the differences between the two governments. Of course, the differences have always been there but so long as there was nothing to stir the hive, these differences appeared opaque. The elections have stirred the hive and now the bees have come out. The differences are in the form of government. For example, the U.S. believes in free speech. In Iran, free speech was tolerated to a degree only until Friday, June 19, when the supreme leader finally had enough. Of course, even before the vote, stories surfaced of the Iranian government blocking Internet access and other forms of communication that might be useful to the opposition. Imagine if before last year’s U.S. election the Bush administration blocked all Internet access to pro-Obama websites?

Had this horrific Iranian election taken place at any time during the Cold War or even during the Bush years, the U.S. president would have likely come out strongly against the Iranian government’s actions and in full support of the opposition who are the liberals in the country. This is because the U.S. is the leader of the free world. If the US cannot support democracy and human rights, who will? And who will also have the same political influence that America has? President Obama’s strategy has been to stay neutral, perhaps because he does not want to jeopardize his strategy of engagement since he hopes that it will lead to Iran to surrendering its nuclear ambitions. If Obama comes out forcefully in support of the opposition, then he faces a hostile Iranian government. In this case, Obama can forget about change and engaging Iran. Unfortunately, by staying silent and putting everything into engagement, the U.S. would appear to be turning its back on its post-WWII role as leader of the free world –at least in Iran’s case.