Roger Cohen has come a long way about Iran in the past few months. The New York Times columnist started the year off with a junket to Iran, where he used interviews with the remnants of the Jewish community in that unhappy nation as a justification for a series of disgraceful polemics that sought to portray the Islamist regime in a favorable light. The sham presidential election stolen by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, followed by the violent repression of mass protests, has caused Cohen to change his tune about how nice things are in Iran, even though, incredibly, he claims events have vindicated his disastrous reporting from earlier in the year.
Nevertheless, Cohen’s anger about the way things have turned out in Iran has made him more than a little uncomfortable about the sort of “realist” foreign policy approach to the country that he previously endorsed. Though he still dismisses Israelis and their friends who obsess about the prospect of Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons, his sympathy for the people who are being beaten, tortured, and killed by the Islamist government makes him ambivalent about the proper American approach to the country.
That ambivalence is on display in a lengthy feature that will be published in this weekend’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, which is already available online. “The Making of an Iran Policy” is an interesting exploration of the Obama administration’s twists and turns on the issue, as well as the personalities driving its approach.
The main point of the piece is that Obama and his foreign policy team are committed to a realpolitik view of the world. In this case, that means engagement with Iran must proceed no matter how beastly the ayatollahs and their minions behave. Appeasing dictators is not for the faint of heart. But as Cohen aptly notes, the most obvious historical analogies to Obama’s plans for Iran — Franklin Roosevelt’s rapprochement with the Soviet Union in 1933 during Stalin’s terror famine and Richard Nixon’s outreach to China in 1972 during the equally bloody Cultural Revolution — have one significant difference from the current situation in Iran: “bloodshed then … was not being YouTubed around the globe.” Obama’s slow, bumbling, stumbling, and halfhearted reactions to the heartbreaking scenes in Tehran, which Cohen himself witnessed, were not only an embarrassing indication of the president’s lack of judgment. They were also a measure of how badly a cynical policy, such as his determination to “engage” Iran, plays in an informed democracy.
Indeed, despite Obama’s claim that the opposition in Iran didn’t want his support, Cohen confesses that “protesters I met on the streets of Tehran pointedly asked me, “Where’s Obama?” The conclusion that this policy has been a disaster both in terms of the administration’s credibility and the forlorn hope of convincing the Iranian government that America means business about stopping their nuclear program is inescapable.
According to Cohen, Obama’s team, in which veteran foreign policy hack and Middle East peace processor Dennis Ross now plays a pivotal role from a perch at the National Security Council, is nonetheless determined to move ahead with engagement even though their plans are in ruins. Even if it were inclined to deal with Obama, the Iranian regime “is in no position to talk right now.” Obama has forced everyone in his administration to read from the same playbook on Iran — even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who supposedly entered into office with a sensible skepticism about appeasing the regime. But they must now contend with the fact that “Iran has morphed in the global consciousness, to the point that U2 and Madonna have adopted the cause of Iranian democracy.”
Cohen’s report makes it impossible for anyone to believe the promises of administration officials, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that the U.S. will give the Iranians only until after the United Nations General Assembly meeting in October before switching from engagement to action. Their goal is not containment or reform of Iran but “normalization” with the regime as it stands now. The one thing that Obama does seem serious about when it comes to Iran is stopping Israel from acting on its own to spike a nuclear program that threatens the Jewish state with extinction. “Obama has staked a lot — arguably his whole “smart power” doctrine — on preventing that,” Cohen concludes.
So that’s what it comes down to after so much talk from the president on Iran, both before and after his election. The one thing this administration is determined to do is not to fulfill Obama’s promises to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes or to isolate this despotic regime or to work for its overthrow by the millions of Iranians whom we now know want change. The only point they will stake everything on is stopping Israel from defending itself, even though the last thing Israelis want is to be forced into a position of having to act on their own.
But this is, more or less, how Cohen himself saw the issue this past winter, when his focus was on counteracting the campaign by friends of Israel to raise awareness about the Iranian threat. Though much has changed since then, Cohen’s goal of isolating Israel, not Iran, appears to be the policy that has won out in Washington.