For Iran, WikiLeaks cables validate its skepticism of Obama's sincerity

Iranians and analysts alike say the leaked diplomatic cables show a half-hearted attempt at engagement, undermined by an assumption that engaging Iran was pointless.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, smiles while attending an official meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (not pictured) in Tehran on Nov. 29.
Caren Firouz/Reuters
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to a question during a news conference in Tehran on Nov. 29.

WikiLeaks revelations that American officials were planning to raise pressure on Iran with more sanctions and a missile defense shield – even while President Obama was making high-profile public overtures to Iran – are being seen in Tehran as validation of deep skepticism from the start about Obama’s effort.

Iranians and analysts alike say the leaked diplomatic cables show a half-hearted attempt at engagement in which the US administration’s “dual track” policy of simultaneously applying pressure and negotiating was undermined by a singular focus on the pressure track and a growing assumption that engaging Iran was pointless.

“Although the [American] gestures sounded sincere and honest, according to these documents there was at least a parallel approach to keeping both options open, though they were 180 degrees apart,” says a veteran observer in Tehran who could not be named for security reasons. “WikiLeaks indicates that from the beginning [Obama] was very sharp on this issue, and some Iranian officials … were right [in their skepticism].”

“All in all, from whatever angle you look at it, or which document you pick, the net result is further distance between Iran and America,” adds the observer. “The wall of mistrust is much thicker now than it used to be 10 years ago, and the possibility of any reconciliation is much more remote than in the past.”

The dual-track approach

In his first television interview as president, one week after his January 2009 inauguration, Obama said: “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

Yet one document shows how, barely a month later, a senior US Treasury official was sent to Brussels to reassure more than 70 Middle East and nonproliferation experts from all 27 European Union states that, despite public talk of engagement, the US “remains committed to the dual-track approach.”

Labeled “SECRET/NOFORN” – meaning not for distribution to foreign nationals – the document describes the March 3, 2009, classified briefing by Daniel Glaser, acting assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, and his request for more European measures against Iran.

“To be sure, ‘engagement’ would be an important aspect of a comprehensive strategy to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Mr. Glaser briefed, according to the document. “However, ‘engagement’ alone is unlikely to succeed. Diplomacy’s best chance of success requires all elements combining pressure and incentives to work simultaneously, not sequentially.”

“Time was not on our side,” the document says that Glaser warned. “The international community must urgently choose between several bad options.…” The EU had “an important, but time-sensitive, opportunity to help diplomacy succeed by targeting illicit Iranian conduct.…”

'A clear conviction' that engagement would fail?

That secret briefing came just 17 days before Obama made his first official diplomatic gambit. In a message to Iranians to mark the Persian New Year, on March 20, 2009, he called for a “new beginning” with Iran, in which “the old divisions are overcome.”

“There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences,” Obama said, and then quoted the ancient Persian poet Saadi, who described all the “children of Adam” as “created of one essence.”

Recognizing the significance of the US president’s words, Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei listed Iran’s many grievances against the US in a speech the next day, then asked: “They say they extended their arm towards Iran. What kind of hand? If it is an iron hand covered with a velvet glove, then it will not make any good sense.”

But then Ayatollah Khamenei added: “You change, and we will also change our behavior, too.”

The leaked cables show a determined effort by the Obama administration, however, to ratchet up pressure on Iran by convincing China and Russia – via a Saudi guarantee of fuel supplies for China if Iran’s dried up, and a revamped European missile shield for Russia – to vote for more stringent UN sanctions.

Even if the US had not pursued such steps, described by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at one point as aiming to impose “crippling” sanctions on Tehran, it is not clear that Iran would anyway have agreed to negotiate – or could have, considering Iran’s own political infighting.

“The US undertook its engagement strategy with Iran with the clear conviction that it would fail [while] preparing (and disseminating in private) an alternative pressure strategy. This is the most serious indictment of all,” writes Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, in his blog about the WikiLeaks documents.

“Iran could hardly have been unaware of all this, so the chance that they would respond favorably – even before the contested election in June 2009 and the brutal crackdown that followed – was essentially zero,” says Dr. Sick. Iran repeatedly accused America, along with Britain and Israel, of orchestrating the massive street protests in the wake of the 2009 election.

“The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy,” adds Sick, who was the chief White House aide on Iran during the 1979 Islamic revolution and hostage crisis. “It has yet to be tried.”

Long before the WikiLeaks release, Iran frequently stated its belief that the US was not serious in talking to the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, or any other issue.

“These [US overture] statements may seem soft, but in reality there is a cast iron fist underneath a velvet glove,” Khamenei said earlier this month, referring back to the symbolism of his earlier comments and showing that, from Iran's perspective, the US hadn't changed its approach.

Before the US successfully orchestrated a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran in June, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said: “The US government and its allies are mistaken if they think they can brandish a stick of [a] resolution and then sit down to talk with us – such a thing will not happen.”

Ahmadinejad decries WikiLeaks trove as 'propaganda game'

Still, a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers are slated to resume next week after a 14-month hiatus. Mr. Ahmadinejad, ironically for a conservative, has in recent years taken several steps to improve US-Iran ties, including writing letters to former President George W. Bush and Obama, and to the American people.

At a Tehran press conference Monday, Ahmadinejad appeared to be not fully briefed on the contents of the WikiLeaks documents, nor the fact that Washington has decried their release. He called them “psychological warfare” and a “propaganda game” aimed at Iran.

“These documents are prepared and released by the US government systematically and in pursuance of an aim,” said the Iranian president. Such “mischievous acts” were “worthless” and would “not have their desired political impact.”

Far more unsettling for Iranian officials have been the candid assessments about Shiite Muslim Iran by its Sunni Arab neighbors, whose leaders and top officials are often quoted in the secret US cables – despite long-standing diplomatic efforts by Tehran to win their favor – as detesting and fearing the Iranian regime.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, is stated in one cable as repeatedly calling on the US to take military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, to “cut off the head of the snake.”

For Iranian hard-liners, the presidency of George W. Bush – who famously declared Iran part of an Axis of Evil with Iraq and North Korea in January 2002 – was easier to vilify. So for those who have made “death to America” a mantra since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Obama presented far more of a challenge by openly suggesting a willingness to talk.

“It’s like there’s been no change, it’s a continuation of Bush,” says the Tehran observer about current US policy. “There is more and more investment in animosity, and very little for allowing the option of something else appearing, like a reconciliation.... Where is the impact of Obama, who raised so much hope among Iranians, among Americans? [That is the most] disappointing aspect of the whole story.”

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