What’s the Point of Talking?

Can you trust President Obama to deal with Iran and Syria?

Syrian President Bashar Assad

Throughout his election campaign, Barack Obama promised that the United States would “engage” friends and foes alike, particularly in the Middle East where the Bush administration had sought to isolate Iran and Syria. His rationale was that “if America is willing to come to the table, the world will be more willing to rally behind American leadership” to address global problems, including Iran’s nuclear program.

The Bush administration also began with an impulse to “engage” states in the Middle East with which it was on strained terms. In February 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to the region to convince Iraq’s neighbors to approve “smart sanctions” against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Powell won a promise from Syrian President Bashar Assad that he would turn Iraqi revenues from oil pumped through Syria’s pipelines over to the United Nations. Assad never complied, and Powell ended up with egg on his face. The thrill of engagement was foiled by the region’s realities.

This makes Obama’s promise of engagement interesting to watch. The president has been welcomed by political “realists,” whose aim has been to take U.S. foreign policy back to the dispassionate pursuit of national interests, free from the supposedly ideology-driven ways of the Bush years. This amoral approach has jarred with Obama’s rhetoric of moral righteousness—demonstrating that U.S. presidents, including Bush, usually blend morality and amorality when shaping U.S. behavior overseas. However, that doesn’t explain how Obama will differ from Bush in handling hard-nosed recalcitrants such as Iran and Syria.

Engagement, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. Talking to Iran or Syria just for the sake of talking, or to be different from Bush, will only give both states what they desire while bringing the United States few advantages. However, engagement now seems unavoidable, and it is disturbing that Obama’s foreign policy advisers have provided few clear answers to two very basic questions surrounding this near certainty: What does America intend to get out of a dialogue with Iran and Syria? And what leverage does the Obama administration have to achieve its objectives?

For the moment, it is the United States that is in the position of wanting to talk and that is pressed to do so quickly, meaning it must get the process rolling with concessions of its own. The administration wants to open up to Iran before the Iranian presidential election this June to decrease hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election chances. It is also in a hurry to test Iranian intentions in the nuclear dispute before Tehran’s building of a nuclear device becomes irreversible.

Such thinking is understandable, but is it realistic? Playing domestic Iranian politics is a bad idea. Iran’s leadership is united over the nuclear program, with policy set by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Tehran will be delighted to go along with a dialogue to buy time, knowing this would make it difficult for Obama to suddenly switch to war mode if he fails to alter Iranian behavior. And if he has to rely on U.N. sanctions and military intimidation again, Obama would be acting like Bush.

That’s why any U.S. opening to Iran must be thought out in complex, wide-ranging terms. The Iranians can play on several game boards simultaneously, and they have adeptly guarded against an attack on their nuclear installations by setting up multiple walls of retaliatory threats regionally. These have included striking against U.S. troops in Iraq or against pro-American Gulf states, which, with the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, could send oil prices skyrocketing. And Lebanon’s Hezbollah has said that if Iran were bombed, it would fire rockets at Israel.

Does the Obama administration have a comprehensive scheme to counter this? Doubtless it is looking at contingency plans, but nothing during the campaign suggested the president had an integrated strategy. So much vigor was put into denouncing Bush that Obama never really told us how he would be different. To persuade Iran to change tack, the administration will need to coordinate Arab and international efforts to grind away at Iran’s power throughout the Middle East. That means combining coercion and dialogue—not relying exclusively on talking.

One proposal circulating in Washington is to weaken Iran by engaging Syria. The logic is that normalized U.S. relations with Syria will encourage Assad to break with Iran and with nonstate actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Iranian and Syrian interests can diverge, particularly over Arab-Israeli negotiations. However, the Syrians know a good thing when they see it. Assad is courted by the United States and European states only because of his dangerous liaisons and his ability to destabilize states around him. If he were to abandon these, Syria would turn into a secondary state. Indeed, until now, Assad has not willingly yielded on any of the issues important to him, whether over Lebanon, Gaza, Iran, or Iraq.

For Syria, the main appeal of a dialogue with Washington is the opportunities it will create to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon, which provided the Syrian regime with regional relevance. Assad never accepted his army’s departure from the country in 2005 under international pressure after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. There is little doubt the Syrians were behind the crime, but they believe that warmer ties with Washington will push the international community to find Syria an exit from the tribunal being set up in the Netherlands.

The Bush administration recalled its ambassador in Damascus after Hariri’s killing, a decision the new administration may soon reverse. Obama’s vagueness on how to safeguard Lebanese sovereignty is worrisome (as was Bush’s), because Damascus has spent the last three years violating every U.N. resolution destined to achieve that end. Lebanon was a verifiable success for George W. Bush. By turning engagement into a fetish without grasping its damaging consequences if badly conceived, Obama might harm not only the United States but especially those in the Arab world unwilling to be stifled by Iran and Syria.