WASHINGTON — When President Obama and his foreign policy advisors took office last year, one of the most pressing items on the agenda was the challenge coming from Iran. That country, which had been the subject of American economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation for more than three decades, had grown increasingly powerful and aggressive during the Bush administration and was central to a variety of regional and international issues of vital concern to the United States.
Creative action was needed.
As a result, the president took bold steps to strategically employ a two-tracked policy for dealing with Iran through engagement and sanctions. In addition, he worked assiduously to allay the concerns of America’s top Middle Eastern ally, Israel, while making it clear that a war between the two adversaries would be in no one’s interest.
This was a time when Obama went big and shook things up on a stagnant policy. He challenged the status quo, changed the dynamic and reasserted American power on this issue, power that was squandered by the Bush administration.
Specifically, Obama spoke directly to the Iranian people during the start of their new year, Nowruz. He authorized direct diplomatic contacts. He sent personal letters to the Iranian leadership. He sought to gain international legitimacy for American pressure, pursuing approval at the United Nations and strengthening our work with the International Atomic Energy Agency. He also wisely reversed Bush administration policies on missile defense and arms control, spurring broader collective activity against Iran led by the United States. And he even ramped up American pressure on the regime by using smart financial sanctions against it.
And against all predictions, the Obama approach worked. It worked so well that the Iranian street, sensing newness in the air, erupted in protest against the regime after its June elections.
Suddenly, sparked by Obama’s creativity, assumptions about how to deal with Iran were thrown into disarray. Now there was an Iranian population to think about. Iranian human rights jumped to the top of the international agenda. The status quo no longer pertained and old assumptions about how to deal with Iran needed to evolve.
Yet in an almost surreal policy dance that could only be choreographed in Washington, the changes in Iran, instead of shaking up the policy community, only served to reinforce its long held assumptions. For the sanctions advocates, their efforts intensified, as they used the street protests to justify tougher action against the regime. For the war hawks, they more aggressively argued that military force was inevitable, as a murderous regime could not be trusted to make a diplomatic deal. And for the foreign policy realists, they chose to ignore the fact that people were dying in the streets, viewing this as an inconvenience to potential deal making with the regime.
The stagnancy of this policy debate, lingering in the background, served as a reminder to the administration about the limitations that Washington could place around its creative Iran policy.
In the meantime, the administration chose to continue to push forward on the dual path of engagement and sanctions. This approach appeared to bear fruit and came exceedingly close to a breakthrough in late 2009, but unfortunately did not yield the concrete results that the administration had hoped for.
As a result, the status quo policy debate returned with a vengeance. Once again, interest groups in Washington are successfully pressuring Congress to increase sanctions, there are open debates about the value of military action and there are calls for the administration to cut a deal with the regime without regard for any of the human rights changes that have taken place inside Iran.
This is most unfortunate, as this pivotal moment calls for renewed creativity, not the reinforced stagnancy of long-held assumptions. This moment requires a bigger vision about what is desirable with Iran, what our timelines for measuring success should be and what the real goal is.
We therefore need to talk about more than just the nuclear program, and should also focus on the broader bilateral governmental relationship between our two countries. In addition, we also need to start thinking creatively about how to engage the Iranian people effectively in order to build a real relationship with that country over the long term, as well as to support them in the near term in their efforts to promote change from within.
On Iran policy, we are now operating in a different context. What used to be black and white about Iran is now colored by multiple shades of gray. Washington policymakers must therefore rise to the challenge and be as creative in their thinking as the Obama administration was in its actions when it took office. It is not too late to reverse the static policy debate in which we find ourselves, but time is not on our side.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)