Mideast journalist Patrick Seale has a new column in the Diplomat asserting that Iran has “defeated” Obama, whose alleged policies of “demonizing” the Islamic Republic continue to throw away a golden chance at engagement. It’s unusual to see a piece so full of errors in a major publication, so I felt it would be worth addressing.
Obama did misread Iran, but in precisely the opposite direction from that which Seale alleges. The candidate Obama took a very open, soft stance to Iran, making promises of face-to-face meetings with no preconditions. Obama meant it, too–it was, in technical terms, a costly signal, for Clinton and McCain criticized him for it relentlessly, yet he stuck to his guns. Obama thought that by opening America’s ears to Tehran, there would be a change in calculations as the mullahs realized that the US was not an eternal enemy and that our two nations share some common interests and, beneath the chador of the state’s harsh Islamism, a lot of common culture. Those taking this position have a lot of explaining to do–how can America even be neutral towards a major proliferator and sponsor of terror, how can it ignore the soldiers dead from Iranian bombs in Iraq, how can it ignore the tragic repression of one of the world’s most ancient cultures? However, it’s not a totally indefensible position by any means. There are always glimmers of hope emerging from beneath the system, and the hardline stance of the regime gives it few friends–shouldn’t it want to reach out? Can’t the perennial appearance of reformists be a sign of a chance for detente?