Obama Slammed for Iran Outreach

American neocons are furious that President Obama reportedly sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei apparently urging concessions on nuclear talks and referencing joint interests in combating Islamic State radicals, but the letter may reflect smart diplomacy, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The bursts of criticism, from those who inveterately oppose any dealing with Iran, and those who inveterately oppose anything Barack Obama is doing, which include some of the same people, of a letter Mr. Obama reportedly sent to the supreme leader of Iran can readily be dismissed for multiple reasons.

There is, to begin with, the spectacle of critics getting up in arms about a letter the contents of which none of us outside the administration, including the critics, have seen. We only have a general sense, from the Wall Street Journal report that broke this story, of the message the letter conveyed.

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

There also is the old notion that merely communicating with another party, whether face-to-face or in writing, somehow shows weakness and/or is a reward to the other party. It is neither; communication is a tool for us to express and pursue our own preferences and objectives, and to explore ways to attain those objectives.

As Farideh Farhi notes, most of the people who are objecting to letters being sent to the Iranian supreme leader previously objected in the same way to having any diplomacy with Iran at all, diplomacy that already has achieved major restraints on Iran’s nuclear program that years of non-communication were unable to achieve.

Then there is the crude, unthinking primitiveness of slapping a label of enemy on someone and acting as if the mere label is sufficient reason not to do any business with, or even to communicate with, that someone, with no attention whatever being given to the best ways to pursue our own objectives.

Thus we have John (“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain saying that “they [Iran] are our enemy” and that any U.S. foreign policy that deals with Iran is “off the rails.” And we have Mitt Romney saying that sending the letter was “so far beyond the pale, I was stunned. I was speechless. The right kind of approach in dealing with Iran is that we consider them a pariah, their leaders are shunned.”

The label-making approach to foreign policy, represented by these comments, helps to satisfy the urges of those who for their own reasons need an enemy and for whom Iran has long filled that role, but it certainly is not a good way to advance U.S. interests.

Before we move beyond this most recent bit of primitivism, however, there is a lesson here regarding linkage, leverage, and the deployment of U.S. resources on matters on which U.S. interests parallel those of other states.

When last year the United States with its P5+1 partners began serious negotiations with Iran after Hassan Rouhani became the Iranian president, the two sides wisely agreed to focus narrowly on Iran’s nuclear program and the nuclear-related sanctions. Each side has plenty of grievances with the opposite side on other matters, and if the agenda started expanding it would quickly continue to expand into an unmanageable smorgasbord of issues.

But each side is, and should be, aware of how completion of a nuclear agreement would help to open the door to doing mutually beneficial business on other matters in the region on which U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel.

Awhile ago someone in Iranian officialdom commented publicly about how completion of a nuclear deal could lead to more effective Iranian and U.S. action against the newest Middle Eastern threat du jour, the group sometimes known as ISIS.

The comment was a cue for opponents of the Obama administration in Washington to once again accuse the administration of being weak and allowing itself to be leveraged into making a bad deal. There is absolutely zero evidence in what is publicly known about the negotiations and U.S. negotiating behavior that this accusation is true.

Besides, the Iranian comment was not even explicitly an attempt to exert leverage but rather a correct statement about some of the likely possibilities that completion of an agreement with open up.

Although we do not know the exact content, the sense that the Wall Street Journal report gives us about the recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei is that it was an effort to persuade the ayatollah to endorse the additional Iranian concessions necessary to complete the agreement.

As part of that effort at persuasion, the letter reportedly alluded not only to direct benefits to Iran that would be associated with a deal but also the prospect of more effective action against ISIS, in other words, the same sort of comment, conveyed in the reverse direction, as was heard from Tehran earlier.

Domestic U.S. opponents who hopped on that earlier comment ought to be pleased that the Obama administration is turning the tables and that, if there is implicit leverage to be exercised, the United States is exercising it.

Which side succeeds in such maneuvers depends on who cares more about the issues at stake. The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.

To the extent we can make such comparisons (and admittedly we can make them only indirectly by inference, because direct inter-nation comparisons, like interpersonal comparisons, of utility are not really possible), it appears so far that Iran is the party that wants a nuclear deal more.

The best indication of that is the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last year and in which Iran clearly made most of the concessions, freezing or rolling back the parts of its nuclear program that mattered most in return for relatively minor sanctions relief.

It also appears that Iran cares more about stopping and rolling back ISIS. The Iranians have been far more active on the ground, at higher cost and risk, in assisting the Iraqi government in combating ISIS than the United States has been so far. That is unsurprising and appropriate.

The Iranians have better reason to be concerned about ISIS than we do. They live in the same neighborhood and have interests more directly threatened by ISIS than do we, who are more likely to be threatened only as a consequence of our own involvement against the group and the revenge that would flow from it.

The preceding set of facts makes for a state of affairs that ought to please us. Not only are we better positioned to play the game of implicit leverage; we can also see Iran do more of the heavy lifting against ISIS, both now and after a nuclear deal, but with even more opportunities for effective coordination of such anti-ISIS efforts in the wake of an agreement. Some Americans, however, are allowing their Iranophobic, label-directed approach to foreign policy to lead them to look this gift horse in the mouth.

We also lose some of our advantage each time we say or do something that makes it look like we care more about the fortunes of ISIS than the Iranians do. President Obama deserves criticism not for sending letters to the ayatollah and for mentioning ISIS in them but instead for saying things and moving troops in ways that foster the impression that ISIS is more important to us than to Iran.

And American hawks deserve criticism the more they push Mr. Obama in this direction, which undercuts their own claim to be concerned about enhancing negotiating leverage against Iran. This is yet another example of a recurring tendency in American foreign policy, which is to insist on getting the United States so far in front in addressing problems that allies as well as adversaries become free riders rather than doing what ought to be their share of the pedaling.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Obama Slammed for Iran Outreach

  1. Abe
    November 11, 2014 at 14:42

    The Iranians “care” about ISIS, not because they are eager to do “heavy lifting” for the US, but because they want to keep the US-Israeli-UK-Saudi-Qatari regime change project from invading their territory, fighting them over in Iraq is so they don’t have to fight them at home. The Iranians also want to appear to be “cooperative” in order to get the heavy sanctions regime lifted. A devil’s wager, to say the least.

    • Abe
      November 11, 2014 at 14:54

      While the US desperately attempts to disown responsibility for ISIS’ creation and perpetuation through an unconvincing propaganda campaign, false flag terror strikes against the “homeland,” and a series of increasingly ludicrous, orchestrated strawman victories in Iraq and Syria – Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran are leading the real fight against ISIS.

      The US apparently plans on protecting ISIS for as long as possible under the guise of being the sole force “fighting it,” while ISIS consolidates and moves on Western designated targets. In the process of “fighting” ISIS, the US is managing to destroy Syrian infrastructure and defenses. The US, however, has failed in attempts to exclude Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian forces from countering the ISIS threat and now the region is witnessing a race between ISIS’ inevitable destruction and America’s attempts to topple Damascus before ISIS vanishes from its geopolitical toolbox.

      ISIS is America’s Dream Rebel Army
      By Tony Cartalucci

    • Abe
      November 11, 2014 at 15:19

      The US, Israel and their regional allies have been on the record that the final target of their “regime change” campaign in the Middle East was to dismantle the Syria–Iran alliance.

      With the obvious failure of Plan A to dismantle the self-proclaimed anti-Israel and anti– US Syrian–Iranian “Resistance Axis” by a forcible “regime change” in Damascus, a US–led regional alliance has turned recently to its Plan B to interrupt in Iraq the geographical contiguity of that axis.

      This is the endgame of President Barak Obama’s strategy, which he declared on last September 10 as ostensibly against the Islamic State (IS).

      This would at least halt for the foreseeable future all the signed and projected trilateral or bilateral Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian pipeline networks to carry oil and gas from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian coast at the Mediterranean .

      Israeli Col. (res.) Shaul Shay, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a former Deputy Head of the Israel National Security Council anticipated in writing on last January 21 what he called the “Salafi Crescent” that is dangerously emerging to challenge the “Shia Crescent.”

      “The growing involvement of Sunni Salafi jihadis in Iraq (since 2003), among the rebels in Syria (since 2011), and in Lebanon has created a ‘Salafi Crescent’ … from Diyala [in eastern Iraq ] to Beirut,” he wrote.

      “A positive outcome” of this Salafi Crescent “will be the decline in Iranian influence in the region,” Shay concluded.

      Conspiracy theories aside, the eventual outcome is a sectarian Sunni military and political wedge driven into the Iraqi geographical connection of the Iran-Syria alliance in a triangle bordering Turkey in the north, Iran in the east, Jordan in the west and Saudi Arabia in the south and extending from north eastern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala which borders Iran.

      Iraqi Kurdistan is already effectively an independent state and cut off from the central government in Baghdad, but separating Iran and Syria as well and supported by the same US – led anti – IS coalition.

      Amid the misinformation and disinformation, the fact is that the IS threat is being used as a smokescreen to confuse and blur this reality.

      The Endgame of the US “Islamic State” Strategy
      By Nicola Nasser

  2. Abe
    November 11, 2014 at 14:33

    “The United States lost the Vietnam War because the Vietnamese adversary, riding nationalist sentiment in favor of uniting their country and freeing themselves from foreign domination, cared more about the outcome than the United States did.”

    The United States didn’t “care” enough in Vietnam? How many million more dead Vietnamese would there have been if the US had “cared” more?

  3. Abe
    November 11, 2014 at 13:29

    The head of state and highest ranking political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic of Iran is called the Supreme Leader of Iran (Persian: ولی فقیه ایران‎, vali-e faghih-e iran, lit. Guardian Jurist of Iran, or رهبر انقلاب, rahbar-e enghelab, lit. Leader of the Revolution).

    The post was established by the constitution in accordance with the concept of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists. The title “Supreme” Leader (Persian: ولی فقیه, vali-e faghih) is often used as a sign of respect; however, this terminology is not found in the constitution of Iran, which simply referred to the “Leader” (rahbar).

    Ali Hosseini Khamenei (Persian: علی حسینی خامنه‌ای‎), born in 1939, is the second and current Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shia Cleric.

    The leader is more powerful than the President of Iran and appoints the heads of many powerful posts in the military, the civil government, and the judiciary. Originally Iran’s constitution stated that the Leader must be a Marja’-e taqlid, the highest ranking cleric and authority on religious laws in Usuli Twelver Shia Islam. However in 1989, the constitution was amended to require simply Islamic “scholarship” of the leader, i.e. the leader could be a lower ranking cleric.

    The Supreme Leader is elected and supervised by the democratically elected Assembly of Experts. Also, the declaration of war and peace is to be made by the Supreme Leader together with a two third majority of the Parliament.

    Ali Khamenei succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, after Khomeini’s death, being elected as the new Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts on 4 June 1989.

    Ali Khamenei’s tenure as Supreme Leader has been marked by several major protests in Iran, such as Iran student protests, July 1999, 2009–10 Iranian election protests and 2011–12 Iranian protests. He had also served as the President of Iran from 1981 to 1989.

    It is entirely appropriate for the heads of state of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to communicate directly with one another.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    November 11, 2014 at 13:18

    The real story here is, “How did the letter get leaked?”

    Haaretz reports, “The official said Israel learned about the letter shortly after it was sent. The information arrived indirectly, through channels that are not part of Israel’s official contacts with the American administration.”
    Those “unofficial channels” basically refer to dual loyalty insiders who routinely compromise U.S. security, as Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reported on May 6 in the following quote:

    “As Paul Pillar, the CIA’s former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, told Newsweek, old habits are hard to break: Zionists were dispatching spies to America before there even was an Israel, to gather money and materials for the cause and later the fledgling state. Key components for Israel’s nuclear bombs were clandestinely obtained here. “They’ve found creative and inventive ways,” Pillar said, to get what they want.”

    Some may remember the Franklin-Rosen spy ring. Larry Franklin was a TOP PENTAGON ANALYST who was passing sensitive U.S. secrets to AIPAC operatives Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. The FBI had caught them red-handed, but the charges were dropped the minute the Obama administration took over. Their excuse was that the judge made it impossible to proceed without compromising “sensitive information”.

    Sensitive indeed. I’ve got pains in my side from laughing. This is funnier than “TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes” It’s Funnier than “The Darwin Awards” and “Stupid Pet Tricks” combined. Too bad this kind of ineptitude could get us all killed. But as soon as we stop laughing, let’s assume an attitude hypocritical scorn for The President’s detractors. If he had played his cards right, they’d be chilling in a Federal Penitentiary right now. I find his detractors despicable, but nobody can claim that he didn’t bring it on himself. Surrounding himself with Kaganite think-tankers, Heritage Foundation flunkies and WINEP weenies was an invitation to this kind of treason.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 11, 2014 at 14:44

      …but nobody can claim that he didn’t bring it on himself.

      Amen to that.

      My first clue BHO was going to be a disaster was when he kept all those Bush nutcase neocons. And appointing Hillary to Secretary of State? Jeez! She was worse than most of the holdovers.

    • Abe
      November 11, 2014 at 15:00

      Obama teabags AIPAC more cravenly than any Republican, then has the audacity to grumble as he wipes his chin. For that reason alone, he is being ushered to the door along with the rest of the Democratic Party.

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