A Clear-Cut Strategy
Interview with Kazem Sajjadpour, on Obama’s foreign policy towards Iran, Israel and Russia
Since the Islamic Revolution of Iran, United States has adopted different policies vis-à-vis Iran. It seems that their question is: what should we do with Iran. Meanwhile, United States’ Iran policies have undergone changes since Obama’s presidency. What is your opinion? Is Iran an irresolvable problem for America? How are they treating the Iran problem?
In general, since the revolution, Iran’s strategic nature and its stances have been a basic question. The Islamic Revolution is a lesson for Iran-US relations. Iran and the United States were strategic allies during Shah’s reign. The anti-monarchy revolution in Iran which took on an anti-American flavor transformed the relations. Since then, Americans have been struggling with two fundamental questions: how should Iran be understood and analyzed? What policy should we follow against Iran? Changing circumstances change the answer to these questions. Iran is in general an engrossing issue for the United States. The worries sometimes concern the nature of Iran’s political system and sometimes go back to Iran’s behavior at certain times. On a strategic level, United States has followed three differ ways: regime change, containment and engagement. Regime change through military or soft power is still on the agenda. Even some believe that the United States should initiate relations with Iran in order to change the regime through diplomatic means. The containment policy is the best according to Americans. It will stifle Iran’s progress and strategic maneuverability. This became United States official policy in Clinton’s era. Third is engagement. Some believe that we can express our concerns and moderate Iran’s behavior if we engage with Iranians. Some advocates of this policy think of full engagement and some defend limited interaction with Iran.
I have to mention that sometimes a combination of these three policies is enforced. During George Bush’s presidency both regime change and containment were on the agenda while despite his anti-Iranian sentiments, Bush initiated limited engagement with Iranians over the Iraqi issue. Political circumstances, United States’ strategic maneuverability and domestic conditions determine the adoption of any of these policies.
Mr. Sajjadpour, there are many theories are developed in American diplomacy but only some of them open their way into the operational field. How should we categorize and give weight to these theories? And what mechanisms rule the diplomatic field in the United States and how do theoreticians get into the operational level of foreign diplomacy in the United States?
First of all, I think we should not base our view on some articles we read and the reactions to them. For example, Huntington’s ’clash of civilizations’ was not as taken serious in the United States as it was in the Middle East. The same is true for Fukuyama, though both are well-known scholars. Second, we need an analytical framework to understand US politics. As a nation-state, United States has steadfast, clear-cut frameworks in its foreign diplomacy and security policies, though there may be slight shifts due to temporal circumstances, new elite coming to power and such. Economic, bureaucratic, political and military structures plus human factors determine US foreign policy.
Last is the dynamic nature of international policy. Figures change, concerns change and there sometimes events that influence all the affairs, one such as the 9/11 attacks. Its psychological effect on Americans was unprecedented. It raised a wave of sympathy with the Americans, which was against terrorism. However, shortly after, United States violation of human rights in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib sparked off anti-American sentiments.
I would you to explain more about United States foreign policies. For example, has Obama really taken a new approach to the Arab-Israeli issue? Does the decision-making structure in the United States allow for this?
Your question implies that United States’ policy on Israel is immutable. I have to say that US-Israel ties are quite complicated. It is a long-standing, sensitive relationship not mere based on political concerns. The Jewish community of America has a decisive role in this relationship. On the other hand, United States has an equally crucial role in preserving Israel’s security.
There is total agreement between both sides on the vitality of Israel’s security. However, there are two different viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One thinks that ignoring Palestinians’ rights could not serve Israel’s interests but the other side does not believe in any compromise. The Jewish community is not homogeneous. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Jew some in New York celebrated his death while American officials were attending his funeral. This diversity of opinions is pretty conspicuous.
During Bush’s presidency, Israel felt free to carry out its plans in Palestine. However, Obama’s plan for preserving Israel’s security is in line with Clinton and Carter’s policies. They also believed in establishing Israel’s security through engagement with Palestinians.
What is Obama’s new policy about the missile defense shield functional shift? What is the reason?
That’s a good question but it cannot be answered unless we take structures, figures and political dynamics into consideration. Obama follows a clear line regarding Russia. An article he wrote about one year and half ago in Foreign Affairs showed what policy he has in mind when it comes to Russia.
There are different approaches to Russia in the United States. Some support downplaying, dissolving or containing Russia. But many support better ties with this country. Clinton sought non-proliferation of WMDs in his diplomatic exchanges with Russia. Obama also has a clear-cut Russia strategy. He believes that global security can’t be achieved without Russians’ cooperation. This is a key point.
Obama and Medvedev met on the sidelines of G20 summit in London. Obama visited Moscow on July. While some focused on the differences between the two countries, Russia and the United states made crucial agreements. Never had Russia allowed NATO air force to use its airspace for its operations in Afghanistan. United States also moderated its position on the missile defense shield.
That is not insignificant. If you study Obama’s April speech in Prague it will tell you a lot about his global security policy, especially on the nuclear issue. Of course Obama’s perception of Iran’s threat is not different from Bush. However, managing the problem may be different. For Obama, cooperation with Russia is important in order to achieve his goals.