Analysis: Iran: US isn’t really going Mullah light

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, April 2, 2009

The tight-lipped approach of the Obama presidency to policy on Iran took a characteristic turn of the spectacular when President Obama sent his carefully worded greetings of happy Nowruz — Iran’s new year — to the Iranian people and leaders.

For the advocates of engagement, the message was a signal that the wind of diplomacy is finally in their sails.

The President seemed to have both legitimised Tehran’s ruling regime and thrown the notion of regime change to the dustbin of history.

In the wake of the message, months of speculation came to a frenzy. The President would talk to the Mullahs — a letter to the Supreme Leader was rumoured to be in the writing mills of the administration — and they would talk back. Diplomacy would overcome all obstacles. Iran would be delivered from the double evil of military pre-emption and outside subversion.

Perhaps all this is so. But engagement enthusiasts — especially those who feel that Iran is a noble power with legitimate grievances — should not ignore the evidence.

Overwhelmingly, it is that President Obama might engage; but the nature of engagement will not be diplomatic pleasantries. After all, this is the president who, on the campaign trail, called a nuclear Iran “a game changer” in the region and hence an “unacceptable” change.

This is the same president who, as a candidate, went repeatedly on record to say that he believed and supported tougher sanctions — including, explicitly, an embargo on exports of petrol to Iran (Iran imports 40 per cent of its domestic consumption from European wholesalers).

As president, he re-appointed as Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey, who has held the post since 2004 — and is the architect of financial sanctions against Iran and Tehran’s chief bête noire.

Last Sunday, his new special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan (Richard Holbrooke) and his Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, both talked tough on Iran.

Holbrooke threw cold water on the notion that 30 years of enmity could be washed away by a meeting — in reference to Iran’s attendance at the Afghanistan conference in the Netherlands earlier this week.

And Gates candidly said that only tougher economic sanctions would work with regimes like Iran and North Korea.

Congress has also got a part to play. In a letter to the President, numerous congressmen asked that engagement be accompanied by tough measures. They also sought a short and strict timeline — an indication that engagement will be a means, not an end, and if it does not work, all other means return to the table.

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is director of the Transatlantic Institute and author of ‘Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the bomb’ (Profile Books)

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010