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World

Obama's Diplomatic Gamble On Iran Adding Instability In Middle East

Iranian demonstrators hold signs mocking President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in February. President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech saying said the world needs Iran to help stabilize the troubled Middle East, in remarks pointing to wider ramifications of a deal over its disputed nuclear program.
Iranian demonstrators hold signs mocking President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in February. President Hassan Rouhani delivered a speech saying said the world needs Iran to help stabilize the troubled Middle East, in remarks pointing to wider ramifications of a deal over its disputed nuclear program.

Even before he became president, Barack Obama was imagining the possibilities of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. His willingness to reverse decades of official U.S. hostility was one of the things that set Obama apart on the campaign trail.

"We have to have a clear break with the Bush-Cheney style of diplomacy that has caused so many problems," Obama told NBC's Meet the Press in November 2007.

Polls suggest most Americans have come around to supporting a deal that would relax economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on that country's nuclear program. But analysts say in carrying out his diplomatic gamble, Obama has added to instability in the Middle East.

"In this region — broken, angry, and dysfunctional — this president doesn't have a whole lot to point to," said Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center. "In fact, you could argue that this region is profoundly worse than it was in 2008."

Longtime diplomat Hillary Mann Leverett applauds Obama's original vision of renewing ties that were severed after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. "It doesn't mean giving up one ally for another," said Mann Levertt, co-author of Going to Tehran. "It does mean having more of a balance, where a natural, large power like Iran serves as a balance to some of the even reckless impulses of our allies."

She likened the idea to Nixon's outreach to China, recognizing Iran as a rising power that's here to stay.

Obama himself drew the same comparison in his Nobel Peace Prize speech five years ago.

"We must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time," Obama said.

But Mann Leverett argues Obama hasn't gone far enough, either in reshaping the U.S. treatment of Iran or selling the change to the American public. His overture is less like Nixon's broad outreach to China, she said, than Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful effort to achieve a SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union.

"It just all seemed too hard," Mann Leverett said of Obama's Iran initiative. "He had these strategic impulses, but was never able to put it through into a real strategy."

Limited though it may be, the administration's negotiation with Iran has shaken traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, through its action and inaction elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. has left both friends and enemies uncertain about what it will do next.

"I think we've been reactive," said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy. "I don't see a strategy. I think we're sort of back on our heels and not quite sure what to do."

Rothkopf argues that Iran has capitalized on the administration's hands-off approach to the Middle East, expanding its influence from Syria to Yemen.

"The Middle East has never been as dangerous as it is right now. And that's saying something since the Middle East has been dangerous for a long time," Rothkopf said.

The White House insists a nuclear deal with Iran would defuse the biggest threat to the region.

The Wilson Center's Miller agreed a negotiated deal that stops or even stalls Iran's nuclear program is preferable to the likely alternative of military action. But he dismisses as wishful thinking any expectation that Iran's diplomatic rehabilitation will produce a new, more stable Middle East.

"Perhaps in a galaxy far, far away, that is a possibility," Miller said. "I don't see that happening now."

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