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Broken Engagement

How Iran’s presidential election changed U.S. foreign policy

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Hillary Clinton amidst the US delegation to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, President Barack Obama met with an assortment of Jewish leaders to address his administration’s approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, West Bank settlements and, inevitably, Iran. The Islamic Republic’s quest for a nuclear bomb concerns not just Israelis, but American Jews, the majority of whom elected Obama on the promise that his foreign policy would be a 180-turn away from that of George W. Bush. It was a promise he largely delivered both in terms of style and substance—that is, until June 12, the day Iran’s contentious presidential election, changed everything. Foreign policy analysts agree that in light of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s violent suppression of dissent, and his accusations that “enemy” governments fomented the mass protests against incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election, U.S. policy has shifted subtly away from courting the regime for rapprochement, with the focus now being exclusively on halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the president’s team of advisers on Iran have flipped: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long thought to be skeptical of engagement, wields new influence, while Ray Takeyh, the most vocal proponent of the policy, wields considerably less.

Takeyh is an Iranian-American scholar and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as special representative to Dennis Ross, Obama’s special State Department envoy to Iran until June 25, when it was announced that he was being reappointed to the National Security Council. (Ross’s is now advising the White House more broadly on the Middle East.) Takeyh, who could not be reached for comment, has written extensively on the need for American “détente” with Iran, including a highly circulated 2007 essay for Foreign Affairs magazine in which he argued that the decades-long, bipartisan containment strategy had failed, and that the Bush administration’s militant rhetoric about Iran’s being part of the “axis of evil” further isolated a hostile government willing to do business, if approached the right way. Takeyh cited the Iranian ruling elite’s desire to be legitimized by Washington as a vital first step, one which Obama’s address to the people of the “Islamic Republic” on Nowruz, the Persian New Year in March, was thought to have accomplished. This was to then be followed by a “phasing out” of U.S. sanctions and the return of frozen Iranian assets, two rollbacks that look increasingly less likely to be in the offing since June 12. Also, Takeyh argued, requiring Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program—the key to its construction of a nuclear weapon—should not precede conditional talks. The clerical elite in charge of Iran appreciate, he wrote, “that the most suitable way to realize its aims is through elections, which are bound to further empower the majority Shiite community.”

Many in Washington insist that Takeyh’s prescriptions from two years ago no longer apply. Andrew Apostolou, a senior program manager at Freedom House, a democracy promotion group, says. “Policy is by necessity flexible. Nobody predicted this level of unrest.” However, Dennis Ross’s reassignment—itself the subject of speculation given his more hawkish, pro-Israel reputation, which some felt thought made him a naturally ineffective envoy to Iran—might have something to do with Takeyh’s diminishing currency.

Clinton, on the other hand, is reaping the benefits of the White House’s disillusionment with soliciting the mullahs. Suspected of strong disagreements with Obama on many points of foreign policy, Clinton has been forced to keep her opinions private in her capacity as Secretary of State. Indeed, her rhetoric in the last six months has conformed closely to that of the president, and her visibility has remained suspiciously low. She was absent from Obama’s summit in Moscow last month, which (despite Clinton’s broken elbow injury) only amplified the rumors that her role as America’s top diplomat has been supplanted by the commander-in-chief. A State Department official said that while the shift in Clinton’s public statements since the election may be subtle, it is a shift nonetheless. In her July 17 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton reiterated the importance of attempting direct talks with Tehran, but noted that the “prospects have certainly shifted” since the election. The official said that especially when it comes to Iran policy, Clinton is very much a significant presence at Foggy Bottom.

Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that the entire foreign policy establishment has undergone a sea change in the last month in its thinking toward Iran. Whereas the focus used to be on what the U.S. was doing to broker dialogue, now that focus is squarely on what Tehran is doing. In a sense, Clawson adds, the international furor over Khamenei’s crackdown may have been a blessing in disguise for Obama because it’s reduced pressure on him to show that he’s doing all he can to distance himself from his predecessor. “There was a broad agreement by end of 2008 that we had lost the PR battle,” Clawson says. “Many around the world thought we were the problem and the Iranians were not. Now that’s changed, even if it is embarrassing [for Obama] to admit that ‘I made the right call six months ago, but right now my policy is closer to what George Bush was doing.’”

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Broken Engagement

How Iran’s presidential election changed U.S. foreign policy

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