US Foreign Policy

Policy Crossroads: US Policies towards Iraq and Iran in Obama’s Second Year

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By Ellen Laipson – When President Obama came into office, he pledged important shifts in US approaches to the challenges of Iraq and Iran. In the first year of the new administration, senior officials developed new thinking and articulated new policy goals. In the case of Iraq, the process mainly has stayed on track, but is now in another period of transition, as Iraq faces elections in the coming weeks. In the case of Iran, the policy has required continuous fine-tuning, has faced some significant setbacks, and may be at a critical juncture that could undermine the President’s strategic objectives.

With respect to Iraq, the President focused on ending the war and shifting the focus to one that looks at the US-Iraq relationship over time, beyond the exceptional period of occupation and deep security engagement. This included a greater focus on the US civilian presence and types of activities inside Iraq, and more attention to the casualties of war, including assigning senior officials to address long-term solutions for Iraq’s refugees, and for returning veterans. For some , this shift held the risk of undermining or reversing some US efforts to transform Iraq’s security sector and its political institutions. They worry that conditions could deteriorate after the withdrawal of US forces, and they hope that the US will be flexible and adjust the timetable for withdrawal should circumstances require it.

That timetable was the result of negotiations, and reflects the political requirements of the government in Baghdad. It is hard to imagine a publically and politically acceptable reversal of course. Iraq’s leaders may look for ways to extend US missions that are not technically “combat” related, to ensure some level of professional support and training for Iraqi security forces beyond the deadlines set out in the 2008 bilateral agreements. President Obama has remained steady in his conviction that an occasional outbreak of violence will not trigger a reassessment of US plans, and troops that would have deployed to Iraq are already being assigned to different missions.

Nonetheless, there is a new transition underway in US engagement in Iraq. As Iraq prepares for parliamentary elections in early March, US policy will face the challenge of dealing with new people in power in Baghdad. Some may be from parties that US diplomats have worked with, and that US civil society organizations helped train. But some may represent new political groupings that did not like the Maliki government, and they may take different positions on key national issues. This political transition, presuming it happens peacefully and with sufficient democratic openness, could help set the course for a long-term, stable US – Iraq relationship. But the pre-election maneuvering – including a commission led by current politicians for purposes of de-baathification who disqualified many of their political rivals — suggests that Iraqi democracy is still a work in progress. It is, nonetheless, not at all clear that a change in US plans would alter that situation: Iraqis still need to work out their own system of accountability and the US role can be an important contributing but not determining factor in Iraq’s political future.

As for Iran, the Obama Administration worked hard in the first year to rethink US-Iran relations strategically, focusing on a horizon where a more normal relationship would be possible, based on mutual interests and mutual respect. In such a vision, the nuclear issue was very important but seen as one dimension of a multifaceted policy. President Obama offered “engagement” in formal letters to Iran’s leaders, a New Year’s message to the Iranian people, and repeated explanations of his approach to audiences around the world. He offered to discuss the full range of issues that are in dispute between Tehran and Washington, but received no official response.

The history of US-Iran relations is replete with miscommunications and lost opportunities to establish a more productive interaction. Historians will need to decode whether Iran, throughout 2009, perceived President Obama’s overtures as weakness, felt that time was on their side, or were preoccupied by the ruling elite’s declining legitimacy and control at home. After one year, the promise of engagement has not been advanced, and US rhetoric and policy have hardened, in response to Iran’s defiance on the nuclear issue and refusal to respond productively to the offer of engagement.

US diplomats are now engaged in a new tactical approach to Iran, in which the nuclear problem is front and center. The focus is on new sanctions, in theory to “put pressure” on the government in Tehran and to “change their behavior.” The Secretary of State reported this week that she spends a lot of time engaging other countries on Iran, all in the context of new sanctions. Unfortunately, the logic of this punitive approach is not persuasive; there is little evidence from the history of US-Iran relations that would suggest this new approach will produce its intended results. The defiance of the Iranian regime is well established. And the repetition of the theoretical commitment to “engagement” rings a bit hollow.

In the second year of the new Administration, the Iraq agenda is more or less on track. The transition is a natural one, if the Iraqi voters choose new leadership next month and the shift away from a security-driven policy proceeds roughly on schedule. In the case of Iran the return to a more punitive policy with little prospect of success is a disappointment. At a minimum, one hopes that some form of micro-engagement will continue, with small, quiet efforts to build bridges between unofficial Iranians and Americans on issues of shared concern. It will be hard for President Obama to recreate the sense of potential in the long sad saga of US-Iran relations, given the current situation inside Iran and the refusal of Tehran to respond meaningfully to international expectations on its nuclear activities.

Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.

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