From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.
Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.
As North Korea continues its saber-rattling, it behooves American officials to consider the implications of maintaining such an ineffective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. While conducting interviews for my forthcoming book about the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I had interviewed a former Clinton administration official who acknowledged that Clinton’s team understood the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement but signed the agreement anyway in order to show progress and because they did not believe the regime would last long enough for the promised reactors to have to be delivered. The Clinton team was wrong, obviously, and nearly 20 years of bipartisan diplomatic failure later, North Korea may finally have a leader who could be crazy enough to unleash the worst violence not only on South Korea, but also on Japan, if not the United States.
With the North Korea crisis escalating, perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to ask if they really can afford to play footsie with the Islamic Republic and pursue a diplomatic strategy that has not only failed to deliver, but also has no promise for future delivery. Perhaps Obama and Hagel believe they can contain Iran today, but they should recognize the North Korea crisis today for what it is: a crystal ball into Iran’s future.