On Iran, Bush and Obama were both right

Their bad-cop/good-cop combination appears to have worked remarkably well in weakening the hard-line regime.

There are two fallacies about American policy toward Iran.

The first, subscribed to by many liberals, is that the Bush administration's black-and-white, "Axis of Evil" approach to Iran only strengthened the country's hard-line forces. The second, which many conservatives proffer, is that Obama's "naive," blame-America-first foreign policy weakens our credibility and empowers our adversaries.

Both of these simplistic understandings are wrong. Rather it appears that both Bush and Obama applied the right policy toward Iran at the right time, and that the combination of both administrations' policies undermined the stability of one of the world's most dangerous regimes.

In a recent article, Gary Kamiya decries that neoconservative pundits "have the gall to talk about Iran at all" when "it was their own policies that were largely responsible for the rise of hard-liners in Iran." This is a common misreading of history.

While the hard-liners in Iran did "rise" during the Bush years, it is now clear that this rise was largely illusory, and Bush deserves some credit if they ultimately fall.

Recent events, including popular unrest and dissension within Iran's clerical and political elite, show that Iran's increasingly hard-line approach in past years, both in defiant foreign policy and in crackdowns on civil liberties, was largely an attempt to mask and control a growing popular legitimacy crisis. And this legitimacy crisis can be traced in no small part to Bush's policies.

Bush's invasion of Iraq, which brought democracy and placed large numbers of American troops on Iran's border, combined with his "Axis of Evil" rhetoric, rightfully made Iranian leaders fearful of a US mission to "liberate" Iran or at the very least destroy its nuclear program.

In attempting to counter this perceived threat from the United States, Iran substantially increased funding for its military and nuclear program, supported pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, and financed two proxy wars against Israel in 2006 and 2008.

Iran also increased funding for food subsidies and other handouts targeted primarily at core supporters of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, further damaging the economy and alienating large segments of the population. These expenditures were not cheap, and they coincided with the Bush administration's increasing financial pressure on Iran, thereby weakening the regime.

The combination of Bush's sharpened rhetoric, credible military threat, and economic pressure, may have helped to undermine the Iranian regime in many of the same ways that President Reagan undermined the Soviet regime in the 1980s. Yet many on the left seem oblivious to Bush's contribution, as they were to Reagan's.

But while Bush softened up the regime with these jabs, Obama may have delivered the knockout punch. His extension of a firm but open hand to Iran, the Naruz holiday greeting, and the Cairo speech, all helped to destroy the regime's narrative of America as the "Great Satan."

To a regime that had just spent itself into financial disaster, and recently faced a significant drop in oil prices, the Obama approach was perfectly timed to threaten the Iranian government's legitimacy, coming right before a pivotal election.

While Bush directed his rhetoric to the hard-liners in power, and scared them into adopting policies that would ultimately weaken their own legitimacy, Obama spoke directly to the people of Iran, letting them know that America was ready to begin a new relationship with them if they seized the opportunity.

This bad-cop/good-cop combination appears to have worked remarkably well, both among ordinary Iranians and among potential reform agents within the Iranian power structure. Yet many conservative pundits fail to acknowledge the wisdom of Obama's approach.

Henry Kissinger once reminded us that "most foreign policies that history has marked highly, in whatever country, have been originated by leaders who were opposed by experts."

This appears to be the case with American policy towards Iran. The possible success of the Bush/Obama combination highlights an advantage America sometimes has in foreign policy over autocratic adversaries as a result of its democratic system. This advantage should be recognized and harnessed, rather than ignored amid partisan bickering.

While it is possible to overstate America's effect on domestic situations abroad, Iran shows how such influence can also be understated or distorted. When reacting to future events in Iran, Obama should be wary of believing either the "conservative" or the "liberal" narrative regarding past American policy towards Iran. Instead, he should choose his policy based on what will best confront the situations that develop.

The world could soon see a less brutal and belligerent leadership in Iran, for which both Bush and Obama will deserve a share of the credit.

Dashiell Shapiro is an international tax lawyer.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.