The next worst thing to an administration that doesn’t admit its mistakes is one that never takes credit for its successes. President Obama has both problems.
To be fair, perhaps the White House feels it’s too early to declare anything like success on its policy toward Iran. Diplomats might want to determine whether President Hassan Rouhani’s conciliatory overtures are genuine. But it is easy to hope that they might be. Rouhani has a reputation for his moderate views, and he appears to have the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian theocracy’s supreme leader. Elias Groll has a long list of reasons for optimism, including Iran’s release of 11 political prisoners this week.
If Rouhani’s speech at the United Nations on Tuesday leads evetually to a new nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community, then Obama’s strategy will be vindicated, to some degree. At the very least, it will be clear that Mitt Romney was wrong when he said that the Obama administration had brought Iran “four year closer” to building a nuclear weapon. Instead, it looks like the last four years have brought Iran and the United States closer than ever to a diplomatic solution to their differences.
Since Obama took office, the European Union and the United States have instituted sanctions that have hamstrung Iran’s oil industry and rendered its currency nearly worthless. Now it appears that Iran’s leaders, as well as its people, are willing to consider alternatives to nuclear armament. Israel has also refrained from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, and as a result, the region at least has not descended into total chaos. Obama’s critics could argue that his administration’s trans-Atlantic diplomacy isn’t responsible for these developments and that he is just benefiting from circumstances, but at the same time, they can’t really argue that his policy has been unsuccessful.
I’d like to see the United States work quickly with the Iranians toward some kind of agreement, while the goodwill lasts. And if the goodwill is insincere, then, as Fred Kaplan notes, U.S. diplomats won’t have lost anything. Under Bush, the United States stubbornly refused to deal with Iran, which strengthened the position of conservative Iranian leaders who argued that attempts at reconciliation were a dead end. As Barbara Slavin argued five years ago, the U.S. policy ultimately led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election and to the acceleration of the nuclear program, even after Iran assisted with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The Obama administration had better learn from its predecessor’s mistakes.