Should Obama emulate Bush on Iran?


Today’s topic: With Iran’s already farcical democracy now further delegitimized, should the Obama administration adopt a policy toward Tehran more like the Bush administration’s?

Don’t meddle, but help create a template for Iranians to act
Point: Michael Rubin

As the Obama administration crafts its strategy, it should not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Bush approach lacked cohesion and coordination. A month after President Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil,” the deputy secretary of State said it was a democracy. And although the White House talked tough -- much to the ire of the pro-engagement crowd -- the Bush administration engaged the Islamic Republic more than any administration since Jimmy Carter’s, thereby losing the trust of those seeking more sticks than carrots. Regardless of his ultimate policy, President Obama must realize that the gap between rhetoric and reality is inversely proportional to credibility.


So what should Obama do? The question is not whether to engage or not, but how to integrate diplomacy into a comprehensive strategy. Every strategy should have diplomatic, informational, economic and even military components. Too often, Washington sequences components when a comprehensive approach bolsters diplomacy’s effectiveness. Washington can no longer play checkers as Tehran plays chess.

Credibility matters. Adversaries test red lines wherever they are drawn. Obama should not, like his predecessors, draw his in pencil.

Moral clarity is also important. The president can support broad concepts such as liberty and freedom without endorsing any particular group. Obama should differentiate between the reformists and ordinary Iranians. As journalist Laura Secor wrote in 2005: “Iran’s reform movement, for all its courage, was the loyal opposition in a fascist state. It sought not to dismantle or secularize the Islamic Republic ... but to improve it.” Those Iranians most adamantly opposed to U.S. assistance to civil society were those most loyal to the concept of the Islamic Republic. This does not mean that Washington should meddle or support any opposition group. Twenty years ago, a lone Chinese student stopped a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The goal of our intelligence agencies should not be to identify that student ahead of time, but rather to create a template upon which ordinary people can act.

Most of the budget for Bush’s maligned Iran democracy promotion went to Voice of America and Persian-language Radio Farda broadcasts. Now that the Islamic Republic has clamped down on internal media, the value of this information platform is clear. Raise Radio Farda’s budget 10-fold.

Lastly, the chief problem in the Islamic Republic is that the government believes itself accountable more to God than to its constituents. While workers go without wages for months on end, the Iranian leadership invests billions in nuclear and ballistic missile programs or exporting the revolution. If the Islamic Republic had to answer to its overwhelmingly moderate citizenry, Tehran’s behavior would temper considerably. Bush missed a Gdansk moment when Iranian bus drivers, under the leadership of Mansour Osanlou, formed the Islamic Republic’s first independent trade union. Sugar cane workers in Khuzistan followed suit. Both forced the government to make concessions and be accountable to Iranians. The development of independent trade unions in Iran is a trend Obama should encourage.

Obama may want to engage Iran’s current leadership, but he should throw them no lifeline. It is the Iranian people who matter most.


Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Bush took a bad situation and made it worse
Counterpoint: Matthew Duss

I agree with you, Michael, that the Bush administration’s approach to Iran lacked cohesion and coordination, and so my answer to the question is no, President Obama should not adopt a policy toward Tehran more like the Bush administration’s.

In a number of ways, President Bush took an already difficult situation and made it worse. By casting Iran into the “axis of evil,” Bush earned a few seconds of applause at the cost of handing a huge propaganda victory to Iran’s hard-liners, which continued to pay dividends to them while shadowing Iran’s moderates through the end of Bush’s presidency. Moral clarity is important, but so is avoiding the kind of rhetorical grandstanding that strengthens enemies and alienates potential allies. Thankfully, Obama seems to understand this.

I take some issue with your assertion that the “Bush administration engaged the Islamic Republic more than any administration since Jimmy Carter’s.” While this is perhaps true if one simply tallies up the number of contacts and communications between the two governments, I think it does some injustice to the sort of good-faith attempt to change the U.S.-Iran relationship that many of us in the “pro-engagement crowd” would like to see undertaken. The nature of the engagement and the larger foreign policy context within which that engagement occurs are important.

I agree with you that credibility matters, but would also suggest that questions of credibility and reputation are a touchy business in international relations. It’s often difficult to predict or calibrate how one’s adversary will read one’s actions. The message sent is not guaranteed to be the message received. For example, in invading Iraq, the Bush administration intended to strengthen American credibility and send a message of “toughness” to Al Qaeda and affiliated extremists. The message received by millions of Arabs and Muslims, however -- greatly aided by frequent news footage of U.S. troops breaking down doors and holding Iraqi families at gunpoint -- was that America was at war with Muslims. Maintaining clarity and consistency, as well as avoiding invasions and occupations of other countries whenever possible, are keys to managing this.


You make a very important observation about the Iranian bus drivers’ trade union and the potential for a “Gdansk moment.” Creating the political space for this kind of organizing activity should be a goal of Obama’s Iran policy. I think the 1975 Helsinki accords -- which gave the Soviet Union security guarantees in return for statements in support of human rights -- offer a possible example. At the time, the accords were seen as a major victory for the Soviet Union (and decried as “appeasement” by American conservatives). Over the long term, however, they helped facilitate the rise of dissident organizations that played a significant role in bringing Communism down in Eastern Europe. (It’s worth acknowledging, though, that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts are known to have studied the fall of Communism precisely in the hopes of avoiding such an outcome.)

Certainly we shouldn’t have any illusions about the nature of this Iranian regime. While I disagree that Iran is, in any real sense, still attempting to “export the revolution,” the regime is clearly engaged in a lot of bad behavior and is attempting gain influence and strategic depth wherever possible. We should also consider that, in the end, it simply may not be possible to change the U.S.-Iran relationship. But, given the alternatives, I believe it is strategically and morally imperative that we try.

Matthew Duss is a national security researcher and writer at the Center for American Progress.