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09/21/2013 11:41 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013

Obama's Strategy Of Talking To Countries Instead Of Going To War Might Just Be Crazy Enough To Work

AP

WASHINGTON -- When a less-gray-haired Sen. Barack Obama declared, early in his first presidential campaign, that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of estranged nations like Iran and Syria without preconditions, he was roundly chastised by both Democrats and Republicans alike for naivete.

But now, after six arduous, solitary years of standing by a policy of preferring accord with rogue nations over recourse to full-on war, his approach seems to be on the verge of bearing fruit.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad has agreed to open his chemical weapons program to international oversight, and eventual destruction, after a furious round of diplomacy involving Secretary of State John Kerry and top Russian diplomats. And in Iran, a new, moderate president has responded to a personal letter from Obama, engaging in direct communication for the first time in years and hinting that he might be willing to pull back from his country's controversial nuclear program in exchange for a reduction of painful economic sanctions.

None of the developments has occurred without context or notes of caution, but it's nevertheless a remarkable turn of events for a president whose foreign policy, even a month ago, appeared to be in hapless disarray. If the diplomatic tracks in Syria and Iran pan out, proponents say they could point the way to the resolution of two of the most significant international crises facing the nation, without any American-caused warfare.

"The administration's willingness to show both strength and smarts is paying off," said Joel Rubin, the director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund and a former State Department official, who has worked to promote conflict resolution in the Middle East through discourse.

"On Syria, the president demonstrated that there was a clear point that he did not want the regime to pass, and then took a window of opportunity to cut a deal that actually advances American security interests even more," Rubin added. "An ancillary benefit has been that it's demonstrated to the Iranians that the U.S. is thinking before it's shooting, and that's a pretty new trend for the U.S."

Next week, the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, travels to New York for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). His arrival brings perhaps the greatest hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Tehran in recent memory, and in turn, a possible vindication of Obama's refusal to condone military strikes against the country.

The Obama administration has yet to confirm whether any United States officials plan to meet with Iranian counterparts in New York. Nonetheless, the prospect of such a meeting has diplomatic circles buzzing.

"If there's a meeting between the United States and Iran on the sidelines of UNGA, that will be huge," said a senior Obama administration official who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations.

Such a meeting would almost certainly be held well below the presidential level, the official said, most likely between the Iranian foreign minister and a senior U.S. diplomat like Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, or Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. It's also possible that a "chance encounter" between Obama and Rouhani could be arranged in the halls of the UN.

"Sherman and Burns have the most experience communicating with Iran," said the official. "But whoever it is, it would be a momentous meeting, because this kind of open, direct talks haven't happened in 34 years."

The past week has seen a number of unprecedented overtures from Rouhani, including a rare interview with an American news outlet and writing an op-ed, published Friday in the Washington Post, in which he called for a new era of "constructive engagement" between Iran and the West.

The Iranian government also released nearly a dozen prisoners ahead of Rouhani's visit to the U.S., something that experts say often happens before international forays, but rarely includes such domestic political detainees as the women's rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was released on Wednesday.

And in his interview with NBC this past week, Rouhani said that his country had no intention of ever developing nuclear weapons, adding that he has "complete authority" to negotiate a deal over the peaceful components of the nuclear program.

"This is probably the best opportunity that I can think of [for a breakthrough]," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council and a longtime advocate of the U.S. taking a less heavy-handed approach to diplomacy with Iran. "Right now, Rouhani has unprecedented flexibility."

Skeptics have suggested that Rouhani may have less freedom to maneuver within the hardline elements of his country than he's suggested, especially on the question of the nuclear program. But even some of the most ardent Western dissenters on the regime's capacity to moderate say that the current moment represents one of the greatest openings for dialogue in memory.

Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, and a former top Middle East official in the Bush administration where he often struck a hard line on Iran, said recently that in meetings with the foreign minister in Tehran he has detected an openness to negotiating on Syria.

"It's hard for us to imagine any solution in Syria that doesn't somehow have an Iranian role," Feltman told CNN last week. "The Iranians stated that they understand that we need to get to a political solution. I don't think from my conversations that I had in Iran that the Iranians see it in their interest to see the situation [in Syria] continue or deteriorate."

Parsi believes that in winning a surprise electoral victory over conservatives, Rouhani has actually earned himself a brief window of opportunity to make a deal with the West -- but it's one that must be struck quickly.

"You have to assume he has six months or so where he can get his way, and where the conservatives will have to be on their best behavior," Parsi said. "This is a moment when he has maximum flexibility -- it will either expand if he gets a deal, or it will be lost if he doesn't. If the U.S. fails to reciprocate, we will be forced to deal with the hardliners six months from now."

Not everyone agrees that Obama deserves full credit for pursuing diplomacy at the expense of other tactics. After all, while he has avoided troops-on-the-ground combat in places like Iran and Syria, he hasn't slowed his deadly policy of drone strikes in hot zones like Yemen and Pakistan.

And to some participants in the Obama administration's earlier days, the talk of dialogue and diplomacy in places like Iran was often more talk than practice -- the recent openings from Assad and Rouhani, they argue, have essentially fallen in his lap.

"I think he was not looking for diplomacy with Iran or Syria," said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and a former State Department policy adviser. "Now that it has come his way, he will be judged by whether he makes diplomacy work."

Others -- including some of Obama's own advisers -- argue that to the extent Obama deserves credit for the possible breakthroughs, it is instead because he turned against his espoused belief in dialogue, and showed a credible threat against the regimes: For Syria, it was the recent talk of cruise missile strikes, they say; for Iran, it was years of crushing economic sanctions.

"It was that threat of force from President Obama that changed the calculus around the chemical weapons issue [in Syria], and allowed for this diplomatic progress," Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters on a conference call Friday.

But while it's true that Obama hasn't always held true to the ideals of his early campaign days -- first-term talk of engagement "grounded in mutual respect" eventually gave way to tough rhetoric about "painful sanctions" and nuclear red lines -- he consistently resisted the hardline pull, from hawkish members of Congress and Israeli allies, toward a preventative military strike.

"There is too much loose talk of war," Obama said about U.S. and Israeli threats toward Iran, in a powerful 2012 speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

For observers like Parsi, it is actually this softer side that has done the most to earn the present detente with Iran.

"What Iranians are largely reacting to now is that Rouhani got a congratulatory letter from Obama. That's not toughness -- that is a huge concession given to the Iranians," said Parsi. "When Iranians are convinced that the other side wants to take military action, the only way they know to respond and try to prevent it is to show how high the costs would be, not to suddenly show flexibility."

It's a notion promoted by some of the sharpest minds in U.S. policy. Earlier this year, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Los Angeles Times that without the promise of a softer touch, a strong sanctions regime would only harden Iranian interlocutors.

“Sanctions are easy to do, and afterwards we can tell ourselves that, ‘by God, we’ve really stuck it to them,’” he said. “But it seems to me that the more you press this regime, the more they dig in.”

"Sanctions and pressure are useless if you don't get something for them," added Rubin. "There are going to be some people in Washington who say, 'see, the sanctions are working, let's keep the pedal to the floor and we'll push them over completely and get everything that we want.' But that's not how it works. What the president's saying is, 'let's test them.'"

Officials say those tests are likely to come down to technical issues, such as whether Iran is willing to reduce the number of nuclear centrifuges it currently has in operation. Progress on this front could signal "whether perhaps there's a place for the U.S. and Iran to meet in the middle," said the administration official.

"It's going to be technical specifications, not speeches or tweets or op-eds, that will be the crucial components in determining whether or not there will ever be a true thaw between the two countries."

Joshua Hersh reported from Beirut, and Christina Wilkie reported from Washington.

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