While Realpolitik arguments, in particular the argument for the need to co-opt Iran into a stable balance-of-power system in the Middle East, have been central to President Barack Obama's diplomatic opening to Tehran, he has also integrated an element of idealism into his approach, proposing that American "engagement" with Iran would bring about political and economic changes in that country.
"I think the election of [President Hassan] Rouhani indicated that there was an appetite among the Iranian people for a rejoining with the international community, an emphasis on the economics and the desire to link up with a global economy," suggested Obama in an interview with The New York Times' Tom Friedman. "And so what we've seen over the last several years, I think, is the opportunity for those forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework that they have been in for a long time to move in a different direction," stated the president, predicting that a nuclear deal with Iran would strengthen "those forces inside of Iran that say, 'We don't need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine. Let's excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people.'"
According to Friedman, the notion that American engagement with Iran would help accelerate political and economic reforms in that country was part of a new "Obama Doctrine." But in fact, some version of this "doctrine" has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War and has been promoted by leading American pundits, including Friedman.
Hence the decisions to normalize our trade relationship with China and allow it to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), which reflected the expectation not only that the United States would benefit economically from greater access to Chinese markets but also that China would become a more open society.
"In the new century, liberty will spread by cellphone and cable modem," said then-President Bill Clinton in a speech he delivered in 2000. "We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China," he stressed as he marketed his policy of engagement with China. "In the knowledge economy, economic innovation and political empowerment, whether anyone likes it or not, will inevitably go hand in hand," he predicted.
Like Obama, who admits that the political future of Iran remains uncertain, Clinton conceded in 2000 that bringing China into the WTO "doesn't guarantee that it will choose political reform." But "accelerating the progress, the process of economic change, will force China to confront that choice sooner, and it will make the imperative for the right choice stronger," Clinton insisted.
Anyone who goes through the speeches delivered by U.S. officials and the op-eds authored by American columnists since 2000 would discover that Clinton's prognosis about China would become a foreign policy axiom in Washington. It assumed that whether it was in China or Russia or the Middle East, economic and diplomatic engagement with the United States and the West would help drive political reform and lead to the embrace of a more accommodative foreign policy.
Very few people would deny that the introduction of capitalism into China and its integration into the global economy helped pull millions of people out of poverty and make the country more prosperous. There is a continuing debate over the long-term impact of China's rise as an economic power on American economic interests. But no one would seriously argue today that China is on the verge of being transformed into a democratic system and, by extension, into an ally of the United States. In fact, Maoist China in the 1970s probably shared more common interests with the United States than today's China does.
In a way, in trying to forecast political changes in China, Russia, and elsewhere, American officials and analysts proved to be more often wrong than right. That is not surprising if you consider that most of them probably wouldn't be able to predict who would be elected as the next sheriff in their town, not to mention as the next president of their country.
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, while it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, it's quite dangerous to make critical policies for the future based on predictions that can prove to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
But that is certainly what Republican and Democratic administrations have been doing when it comes to making decisions about war and peace in the Middle East in recent years. Thus President George W. Bush ousted Iraq's Saddam Hussein as part of a campaign to democratize Mesopotamia and advance the freedom agenda in the greater Middle East, while President Obama assumed that helping eject Egypt's Hosni Mubarak from power would allow the United States to ride on the rising wave of history powered by the Arab Spring.
It is amusing that Republican lawmakers and neoconservative pundits who were the leading advocates of the Bush administration's plans to remake the Middle East along democratic and liberal lines have been bashing Obama's response to the Arab Spring and his proposed nuclear deal with Iran by depicting it as the foreign policy naïveté of a spacey peacenik.
In a way, not unlike Obama, these critics are also fantasizing about the day when Iran would become a thriving democracy and boast a prosperous free-market economy. But while Obama expects that to take place as a result of American engagement with Iran, Republicans and neoconservatives believe that America could help that happen through a U.S.-led regime change in the country. In fact, they criticized the current White House for not providing support for the anti-government demonstrations led by the Green Movement in Iran in 2009.
But while it's clear that the majority of Iranians would like to see the lifting of the economic sanctions on the country as well as expansion of trade and investment ties with the West, in Iran today there doesn't seem to be a lot of popular pressure for political reforms that would lead it in a more democratic and liberal direction.
It is quite conceivable that the integration of Iran into the global economy and the ensuing economic growth that the country would experience could strengthen the hands of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, and that, like in the case of China or Russia, a more economically powerful Iran would embrace a nationalist agenda that could even win the support of many secular Iranians.
The prospect that a nuclear accord and American engagement with Iran would not necessarily turn Iran into a democratic ally of the United States doesn't necessarily mean that Washington shouldn't reach a diplomatic deal with Tehran that would make sense based on U.S. national interests. But it then should let the Iranians write their own political history that would reflect their own hopes and not American wishful thinking.