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Now he cares: The big significance of Obama's Iranian move

September 28, 2013, at 7:52 PM

Vali Nasr, a John Hopkins University dean and former senior adviser at the State Department, wrote a very critical appraisal of President Obama's Middle East policy last year: basically, he had none. He was inclined to let the region simmer, and even to ignore what appeared to be overtures from Iran to begin to settle its nuclear problem. America would not be indispensable unless the president actively made it so. Nasr's critique carried over to countries like Pakistan, and to the Arab Spring, where the U.S. would step in reluctantly...and then pull out, once a mess had been made.

What Obama's brain trust would tell you, or me, at the time, was that (a) it is absolutely a goal, a feature, of Obama's broader foreign policy to force other regional actors to take much more active roles in settling conflicts, (b) the less "American" a movement was, the more America could do later to help legitimize it, (c) things take time and Obama thinks in the long-term, and (d) M. Ahmadinejad, while powerless, was off the rails, and even his sensible overtures (and there were some) could not be met with reciprocal gestures.

There are so many reasons to think that the U.S. and Iran will not come to an agreement now.

But.

It is true that Hassan Rouhani's outreach to Jewish people is designed for the consumption of the American political elite, and not actual Jews. Iranian leaders knew that Ahmedinejad's potent anti-Semitism made him unreliable and illegitimate as a world actor. The tweets Rouhani sent seemed to say: "Hey Americans, we're going to say nice things to Jewish people in order to make you feel more comfortable about engaging with us."

And it worked. But it worked because Iran really wants to negotiate its way back to a state of affairs that does not include crippling economic sanctions, for one. How do we know Iran is also not stalling for time in order to build a bomb? We don't. Obama has access to intelligence about what Iranian leaders say privately, and that informed his decision to engage. He is probably skeptical. But we would never know unless Obama accepted, and reciprocated the gesture.

Read this key assessment by Jeffrey Goldberg about Obama's decisions.

Obama has crippled the Iranian economy by organizing some of the harshest sanctions imaginable, and he has stated repeatedly that he won't allow the Iranian leadership to acquire a nuclear weapon. The constant displays of American military might in the waters off of Iran these past four years, coupled with clear statements that the U.S. would use force to thwart the regime's plans, have also impressed Iranian leaders.

Many Americans doubt Obama's willingness to use force against Iran, and many of Iran's Middle Eastern foes do, too. But the Iranian leadership, which wants to have a nuclear capability despite its fantastical protestations to the contrary, is beginning to understand the price it is paying for its atomic desires.

On Syria, Obama's record is disturbing in many ways. He indicated that he would attack the regime as punishment for crossing the "red line" he drew on the use of chemical weapons, but he flinched when the moment came to launch a strike. He has at times seemed disorganized and hesitant, and his critics — including me — saw him as vacillating.

Yet Assad, and his Russian sponsor, Vladimir Putin, both weighed the situation and came to the conclusion that the U.S. meant what it said. It is for this reason — and this reason alone — that Putin and Assad have agreed in principle to arrange for the removal of chemical weapons. Without Obama's threat, the Assad regime would still be free to gas its people. [Bloomberg]

In Syria too, Obama is engaging. He's getting into the mud. Will it work? It's unclear. But as soon as he acted, the gears started to move. Things began to change.

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