Only twelve minutes into his presidency, Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world and Iran, offering America’s hand of friendship if Iran would in turn unclench its fist. Yet three years later, we are closer to war than we were in the last years of the Bush administration, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telling the Washington Post there is a “strong likelihood” of an Israeli strike this spring. How did we get here?
Conventional wisdom in Washington is that Obama’s diplomacy with Iran failed. It did not. As I argue in my new book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, it was prematurely abandoned. Obama’s intention was genuine, but his vision for diplomacy was soon undermined, for four reasons: pressure from Israel and its powerful allies in Congress, and to a lesser extent from Saudi Arabia and France, to adopt a confrontational policy; the June 2009 election mayhem in Iran and the subsequent repression and human rights abuses, which hardened the regime in Tehran and narrowed Obama’s space for diplomacy; Obama’s early adoption of a contradictory “dual track” policy, combining diplomacy with escalating pressure on Tehran; and Obama’s unwillingness to create more domestic political space for diplomacy by challenging a status quo in Washington that is set on enmity.
The Netanyahu government and its Washington allies compromised Obama’s vision in four ways. First, they insisted that diplomacy be given an unrealistically tight deadline of twelve weeks. Second, although Obama was potentially willing to accept enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil under strict inspections, Israel demanded complete dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program, an unachievable objective that rendered diplomacy dead on arrival. Third, the Israelis and their hardline US allies pushed for sanctions before diplomacy was even tried. Obama pushed back at first, but after the Iranian election scandal, the pro-sanctions camp got the upper hand.
And fourth, the Israelis opposed Obama’s view that demilitarizing the atmosphere would help convince Tehran that America was serious about diplomacy. “My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us,” Obama told the Iranians in his March 2009 Persian New Year video. “This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” Israel, on the other hand, believed Washington must repeatedly emphasize that the military option remained on the table so Tehran would not see the United States as weak. Thus, when Obama pursued diplomacy, the Israelis sought to undermine him by increasing their militaristic rhetoric.
Over the past three years, Obama has yielded on almost all these points.
Even before succumbing to Netanyahu’s pressure, however, Obama had adopted the dual track policy, a holdover from the Bush administration pushed strongly by Israel and France, which set the stage for the ensuing stalemate. That policy assumed that diplomacy with Iran could succeed only if coupled with significant escalating pressure. Vali Nasr, an Obama official who recently left the administration, has said that the current stalemate is a consequence of adopting this “failed assumption.”
Since Obama abandoned diplomacy in November 2009 and activated the pressure track, relations have steadily deteriorated. Both sides have escalated bellicose rhetoric, and both have rejected the other’s offer of talks. In the late summer of 2010, Obama began sending military signals, combined with increasing sanctions, to give Tehran the feeling it was facing the threat of attack. The intent was not to start a war but to drive the situation to the brink of war to maximize US negotiating strength and extract concessions from Iran.