Uncontained: Obama's Confused Iran Policy

By Ahmari, Sohrab | World Affairs, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Uncontained: Obama's Confused Iran Policy


Ahmari, Sohrab, World Affairs


In The Epic of Sheikh Bedreddin, one of the masterpieces of modern Turkish verse, Nazim Hikmet tells the story of a failed uprising led by a Sufi mystic and warlord against the fifteenth-century Ottoman sultan Mehmed I. Commanding a ragtag band of rebellious peasants and merchants fed up with high taxes, Sheikh Bedreddin battles the sultan's troops all along the Aegean coast. But the rebels soon end up cornered on the Karaburun Peninsula, where most are slaughtered and Bedreddin is captured. In his poem, Hikmet imagines the last remnants of the rebel army camped outside the gates of the fortress city of Seljuk when a young warrior appears. Moved by the justice of the cause, he offers to storm the gates of Seljuk and raze the fortress all by himself. But Bedreddin, awaiting hanging, tells him: "Seljuk's gates are narrow/You cannot come and go / It has a fortress / not so easy to raze / Go away, roan-horsed brave, / go on your way..."

Connoisseurs of early Ottoman history might hear echoes of this tragic poem in the fate of the Iranian democrats who, in June 2009, staged a dignified mass uprising against the tyrants of Tehran, only to find themselves cornered by a ruthless clergy--and abandoned by the world's leading liberal democracy. At the time, the Obama administration was trying to persuade the mullahs to abandon their nuclear weapons program. And, as one commentator put it, the president was not about to let pro-democracy protests get in the way of his engagement policy. Despite evidence of a violent crackdown against unarmed protestors, for example, the State Department initially refused to disinvite Iranian diplomats from July 4th celebrations held at American embassies around the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally rescinded the invitations under mounting pressure from the press; not a single Iranian diplomat had accepted one, anyway.

In the subsequent days and months, the Obama administration continued to seek rapprochement with the mullahs. As he had on previous occasions, the president insisted on spelling out the full name of the regime ("the Islamic Republic of Iran") in a 2010 video postcard transmitted to the country on the occasion of the Persian New Year--an unambiguous signal that regime change was still very much off the table. The theocrats of Tehran, meanwhile, drove the opposition further and further underground. The Green Movement eventually fizzled out: its leaders silenced under house arrest, its rank and file brutalized on the streets and in Iran's notorious political prisons.

Nor did the much touted engagement track supposedly driven by the president's charisma and goodwill check the Islamic Republic's relentless march toward nuclearization and regional hegemony, which persists to this day. Thus a policy that was ineffective as well as morally dubious robbed the US of a rare opportunity to undermine a dangerous, long-term adversary by embracing a vibrant, indigenous pro-democracy movement aligned with American values as well as American interests in the Middle East.

Since then, a Washington in no mood for an all-out military confrontation, and having had its offers of engagement rudely rebuffed by the mullahs,

has settled on containment as the best strategy for dealing with Iran. In a Foreign Affairs feature published less than a year after the summer 2009 uprising, Ray Takeyh and James Lindsay offered the most comprehensive expression of this new position. Even assuming the mullahs were to cross the nuclear threshold, the Council on Foreign Relations analysts wrote, the US "can contain and mitigate the consequences of Iran's nuclear defiance." To do so, "Washington will need to lay down clear 'redlines' defining what it considers to be unacceptable behavior--and be willing to use military force if Tehran crosses them. It will also need to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region.

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