Did President Obama's Outreach 'Embolden' Iran's Hardliners?

11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Matthew Duss Foreign policy analyst based in Washington, DC.

In an article exploring the Ahmadinejad-led "purge" of Iran's intelligence service, David Ignatius relays this story:

One Iranian political figure has told a Western intermediary that the Obama administration may have unwittingly encouraged the regime's power grab by sending two letters to Khamenei before the June election. The first, delivered through Iran's mission to the United Nations, was a general invitation to dialogue. Khamenei is said to have taken a month to answer, and then only in vague terms. A second Obama administration letter reiterated U.S. interest in engagement. According to the Iranian political figure, this may have emboldened Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to think they had a free hand on June 12.

This suggests that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad felt that they did not have "a free hand" in Iran before President Obama sent letters and wished them a Happy Nowruz, which sounds pretty strange to me. The steady takeover of key Iranian state institutions by the hardline faction that supports Ahmadinejad, and is favored by Khamenei, had been occurring for over a decade. This faction was given a huge political boost by President Bush's "war on terror" policies, which did a great job of confirming hardliners' propaganda about belligerent U.S. intentions, weakening moderates and making talk of improved U.S.-Iran relations political poison.

An alternative interpretation, one that I've heard voiced by a number of analysts, both conservative and progressive, is that Obama's outreach caused hardline elements in the regime to overplay their hand out of fear that victorious moderates would be able to deliver the U.S.-Iranian detente that a substantial portion of Iranians clearly desire.

According to Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council, Ignatius' anecdote "has it completely backwards."

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