Michael Brenner Headshot

Obama's Persian Carpet

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The most striking feature of the dense cable traffic on Iran contained in the WikiLeaks release is the one item that isn't there. My scanning of what's available reveals no mention of possible comprehensive negotiations with Tehran on security arrangements for the Gulf region. Washington doesn't raise it; neither do our friends, followers or allies. Only the Turks hint at it -- and they are told to stop their 'meddling' by Assistant Secretary Phil Gordon. Yet the Iranians have made it clear since April 2003 that they are unwilling to decouple the nuclear question from their (and our) broader security concerns. Recognition of the Islamic Republic, non-aggression pact, Iraq's future, terrorism, and nuclear weapons -- the whole package.

The Obama administration (like its predecessor) has made a studied decision not to let the promised diplomatic avenue extend into those domains. Apparently, Obama personally laid down the rule that there was to be no mention of them. The consequence is that the only two options for addressing the perceived nuclear danger are to ratchet up economic and political pressure, i. e. non-military coercion, or military action.

The Sunni Arab governments give some signs of favoring the latter -- although a close reading of the material and contextual analysis paints a much more hesitant, qualified and variegated picture. The Europeans (like Washington) favor the former and avoid thinking about the implications of its failing -- as it almost certainly will. Washington's choice is a conscious one. Other governments seemingly do not have the self-confidence to even consider a strategy that the United States has rejected. It very well may be that they all eschew the idea of comprehensive negotiations on substantive grounds. However, I suspect that there also is a powerful psychological factor at work. Both the Europeans and Arabs have for generations lived in a dependent relationship with the United States. Understandably, the enervating effects on their ability to think autonomously about critical choices. much less to take initiative or to muster the courage to push for an unconventional course of action are real and powerful. They have been politically denatured. A comparison with Israel is instructive. So, too, is a comparison with Turkey.

Washington and its followers are drifting on a Persian carpet kept aloft by nothing more than their own elevated expectations. So it all rests on the probity and sound judgment of the White House. Our track record over the past decade offers no grounds for encouragement. This administration demonstrably lacks the subtle understandings of Iranian and Gulf affairs that is the sine qua non for conceiving and executing a diplomatic strategy commensurate with the challenge. The now legendary timidity and conventional mindset of Barack Obama, too, points to a dogged continuation of the current sterile approach.