Commentary Magazine


Engagement Is Back

President Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran is back on track–this is the core message of the president’s speech earlier today at the United Nations General Assembly.

The president outlined his vision in January 2009, a few days before taking office, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, where he said that “We are going to have to take a new approach,” adding, “My belief is that engagement is the place to start” and that “a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk” would guide his policy.

But his “willingness on being willing” to talk got trampled over by the reality of Iran’s regime. Iranians rebelled against the regime’s blatant cheating at the June 2009 presidential elections, and blood started flowing. The president was initially incapable of denouncing the brutal repression in the streets of Tehran. After all, he was fresh from his barnstorming speech in Cairo, where he had publicly opened the door to Iran’s leaders for government-to-government engagement. He was just a few months away from his first Nowruz greetings in March 2009 when, for the first time since 1979, a U.S. president had spoken of “The Islamic Republic” of Iran, an implicit but important symbolic recognition that Iran’s regime was legitimate.

The protests against Iran’s fraudulent elections that broke out barely ten days after the Cairo speech did not square well with its underlying themes–and left the president in the embarrassing limbo of silence for far too long before a timid condemnation was finally uttered on June 20, 2009. But they were too hard to dismiss or ignore. It was heart-breaking, for those accustomed to seeing America as freedom’s sentinel in a world of tyranny, to compare the moral clarity of such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Mr. Obama’s hesitation.

America’s novice president must have known that, because his tone got harder and his policy of engagement fell by the wayside.

But four years are long enough to paper over those turbulent days of June. Iran’s ruthlessness is nay a glitch for a president who, after passing on the opportunity to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, has convincingly proven his talent for being morally outraged and politically callous at the same time. Besides, the culprits of that repression are no longer in power–Iran’s new president is only responsible for putting down rebellions in 1999 and 2003–far too long ago for anyone in a Western government to remember.

And so the president has come full circle, telling the world, from the UN podium, that “We are not seeking regime change” in Iran. Engagement is back.

The mullahs may rest assured–America is ready to throw the Green Movement and Iran’s jailed dissidents under the bus in exchange for resuming the engagement with Iran’s rulers, which President Obama had envisaged early on and which a stolen election and a cruel repression only temporarily derailed.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kerroubi can rot under house arrest–America is quite content to negotiate with their oppressors.