After Iran's election, what happens to Obama's engagement policy?

Some are criticizing the president's determination to engage Iran on its nuclear program amid a brutal government crackdown in the aftermath of what many say is massive election fraud.

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati delivers a sermon Friday in Tehran. The head of the powerful Guardian Council said Friday that some of the detained Iranian employees of the British embassy in Tehran will face trial.

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With protests against the results of the recent presidential election in Iran appearing to have ebbed, the world's governments are facing the prospect of dealing with an Iranian government still led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

And while US President Barack Obama stated in a recent Associated Press interview that he is "not reconciled" with a nuclear-armed Iran, the efficacy of his policy of diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government – which much of the world believes installed itself through electoral fraud – has come under debate.

Reuters reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated her support for Mr. Obama's continued efforts to engage Iran in spite of the protests over its recent election. In a speech to the lower house of the German parliament, Ms. Merkel said that Germany "will accompany [Obama's approach] in a united way. We cannot drop the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran just because of the current situation. That would be completely wrong."

But in a commentary for The Wall Street Journal, columnist Bret Stephens criticized Obama's "realist" Iran policy for being "incoherent and obsolete," and argues that Obama's efforts to avoid "meddling" in Iran have shown no results.

Iran's nuclear programs are accelerating. It is testing ballistic missiles of increasing range and sophistication. Its support for terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah is unabated. Ahmadinejad stole an election in broad daylight. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blessed the result. British Embassy staff are under siege. A campaign of mass arrests and intimidation is underway and a young woman named Neda Soltan was shot in the heart simply for choosing none of the above.
Oh, and Iran still accuses the U.S. of "meddling."
Now Mr. Obama is promising more of the same, plus the equivalent of a group hug for the demonstrators. Is this supposed to be "realism"?

But while Mr. Stephens concludes that Obama should adopt the Bush administration's "democracy promotion" and tough talk about "regime change," other critics of engagement recommend a less proactive policy. The Economist's Democracy in America blog, noting that Iran's economy is continuing to struggle, cites Napoleon: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

One positive outcome of this election debacle is that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has now tied himself to Mr Ahmadinejad's economic mismanagement. Every uptick in unemployment is a knock against the current power structure. Every bit of inflation is a reminder of the system's flaws. These are things Iranians deal with everyday, and they are more personal and affecting than the country's relations with America or Israel. So the American administration should quietly do what it can to foment the economic undoing of the regime, but otherwise get out of the way. Because in many ways, the regime is already digging its own grave.

And Roger Cohen of The New York Times also recommends that Obama "leave [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Amhadinejad] dangling for the foreseeable future," so as to avoid the betrayal of "millions of Iranians who have been defrauded and have risked their lives to have their votes count."

The slow arc of moral justice is fine but Iran is gripped by the fierce urgency of now. Obama, the realist on whom idealism is projected, is obliged to make a course correction.
I say all this with a heavy heart. Non-communication between America and Iran is bad for both countries and the world. It complicates and undermines every U.S. objective from Gaza to Afghanistan. It's dangerous and it's unnecessary.
I've argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer.... But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed "justice" and "ethics."

But in a commentary for The Times of London, Andrew Sullivan writes that Obama's continuing offer of an olive branch may be the best approach, because while "isolation and war might be morally and rhetorically satisfying... it might be less morally responsible to the people of Iran and the peace of the world than an unsavoury attempt to grapple with an evil regime with open eyes."

Think of it in game theory, as the British blogger Marbury did last week. Obama is playing "Retaliator". He starts out as a dove and waits to see the response. If the response is also a dove, he reciprocates and builds trust for mutual benefit. If the response is a sharp-clawed hawk, he becomes a hawk. But the dove's posture is always there beneath and is established early for maximal advantage. What Obama wants to do now is what he tried to do in Cairo — to lever the people of Iran against their rulers. He won't take the bait of easy conflict, but neither will he concede without a Khamenei concession. So the pressure builds on the Tehran regime from within and without. And Obama carefully and methodically bides his time.
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