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No More Mr. Nice Guy

by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C.

19 May 2011 23:47Comments

[ comment ] Gone from President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East was Mr. Nice Guy. Nowhere in the speech was there a mention of "the Islamic Republic of Iran," nowhere was there any mention of U.S. outreach toward Iran, and nowhere was there even a nod toward the U.S.-Iran talks that were a principal goal of Obama's in 2009. And that's coherent with the refusal this week of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her partner, the European Union's Catherine Ashton, to take seriously Iran's latest offer -- from Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, and backed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- to restart talks with the P5 + 1.

Instead, Obama spoke only of Iran's hypocrisy and brutality, and its alliance with Syria and -- though he provided no proof -- its support for Bahraini Shiites rebelling against a Sunni-led, authoritarian monarchy there.

Meanwhile, an accompanying fact sheet from the State Department, "Holding Iran Accountable," contained only mention of toughened sanctions against Iran, condemnations of Iran's human rights record, and details of U.S. efforts to support opponents of the regime in Tehran.

That Obama speech contained no nuance in regard to Iran, and that he singled it out for unrelenting criticism, is a sign that Washington has, for now at least, closed the tehran file. There's nothing new being planned at the White House or the State Department, and it's looking more and more likely that the United States will simply put Iran on hold until its roiling internal crisis is resolved one way or the other, perhaps content to wait until Ahmadinejad's term expires in 2013 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, whose health is in question, passes from the scene.

Still, Obama pointedly avoided any reference to military action vis-à-vis Iran. No "military option" was placed "on the table," and, indeed, reports in the Israeli press suggest that the Obama administration has redoubled efforts to make sure that Israel behaves itself, too.

In his speech, Obama noted that the Arab Spring emerged out of a Persian summer, specifically the summer of 2009. "Let us remember that the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail," Obama said. "We still hear the chants [of Allah-o Akbar] echo from the rooftops of Tehran. The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory." Without specifics, he said that the United States would "continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights."

In its fact sheet, the State Department provided a laundry list of recent steps that the United States has taken in connection with Iran. Reaching back to the early years of the Bush administration, when regime change in Iran was overt U.S. policy, the State Department said, "Since 2004, we have supported training and exchange activities, online web portals and training discussion fora, and Persian-language news websites to provide the Iranian people the tools they need to hold their government accountable." It cited programs to support the expansion of the Internet in "closed societies" like Iran's, and it added, "Our new media efforts, including the new USAdarFarsi Twitter feed and our Farsi-language Facebook page, are part of our strategy to engage Iranian youth, using the methods through which they discuss issues that most affect them." Despite actions such as those, however, the United States has refused so far to directly engage with Iranian opposition leaders, and the feeling is mutual: Few within Iran's opposition movement, except for discredited monarchists, want U.S. support. And even if they did, Iran's opposition -- both inside and outside the country -- is divided and quarrelsome, and it has yet to demonstrate that it has a strategy to overcome the regime's willingness to use its police and paramilitary forces with little or no restraint.

Curiously, Obama linked Iran to the status quo forces in Syria and to the opposition in Bahrain. In both cases, that places Iran on the other side of U.S. interests. In Syria, where Obama is edging closer and closer to calling for regime change -- and where the United States has imposed unilateral sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad -- Obama said that Syria "has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression." Perhaps so, although experts on Syria doubt that Damascus needs any help from Tehran in its crackdown on protesters.

Concerning Bahrain, on the other hand, Obama accused Iran of backing anti-regime Shia activists and rebels. "Iran," he said, "has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there." Again, perhaps so, but in this case the United States is on the side of the regime, not the democracy activists, and the president's blatant hypocrisy didn't prevent him from criticizing the "hypocrisy of the Iranian regime." For anyone paying attention, it sounded like the same old regional power politics from the United States: support your friends and undermine your adversaries. "Bahrain," said Obama, "is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security."

Inside Iran, the struggle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, revolving -- at least nominally -- around Ahmadinejad's chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, may or may not play into America's policy toward Iran. By some accounts, Mashaei has recently sought to reach out to intermediaries between Iran and the United States in search of a possible compromise over Iran's nuclear program. Not long ago, he visited Jordan to explore whether King Abdullah might be a suitable interlocutor between Washington and Tehran. In a speech last week, at a gathering organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP),Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, addressed the issue obliquely. "As you might expect, we now see fissures developing among the ruling class [in Iran]," Donilon said. Those fissures, he said, "reflect a fundamental question, whether Iran has the confidence to engage the outside world." After the speech, in a brief interview, Donilon said that his remarks did indeed refer to the possibility that some in Iran's ruling elite might be struggling internally to break Iran's diplomatic isolation through talks with the United States and the P5 + 1.

If so, however, none of that was reflected in Obama's May 19 speech. For the time being, at least, the United States is focused on Afghanistan and the Arab world, and Iran will simmer in the background.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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