Obama’s First Foreign Policy Success

International Politics, Politics

Less than a month in, President Obama can claim his first foreign policy success, if only quietly.  During the run up to the election, Obama said he was willing to have discussions with countries the US has been avoiding for decades, notably Iran.  After the election, he reiterated the point, tossing a bomb shell into Iranian politics.  For the last several years, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has scored political points pitting himself against a politically inept Bush administration.  At every turn, Ahmadinejad has come out on top in the view of his constituents and the larger Muslim world that is his major theater of operations.  Whether he was allowing himself to be battered by aggressive university crowds in the US (see how poor the hospitality is in the US) or refusing to correct poor translations in the NY Times (Ahmadinejad never said anything remotely like Israel “should be wiped off the face of the Earth”), he effortlessly outwitted his US opponents who weren’t able or willing to put in the effort to court Muslim opinion.  Those efforts have been critical to his administration because the tide of economic discontent that brought him into power is still there and growing.  In a country with huge oil reserves, there are routine power outages in Tehran.  The economy continues to sputter and the best and brightest in Iran leave. If he could have prompted a military strike, his reelection would probably have been guaranteed.

But the Obama administration presented Ahmadinejad with a new challenge and so far he seems not to know how to handle it.  Apparently, Ahmadinejad perceived Obama’s open hand remark as a weakness because his first response was an anti-US tirade perhaps meant to test which way the Obama team would jump.  But the Obama team didn’t jump, not to a reflexively defensive position, nor to an aggressive position.  That open hand just sits out there.  Ahmadinejad’s demands for apologies seemed to get no where in the international press with some outlets pointing out that the Clinton administration had already apologized for just about everything where Iran was concerned.  Without a radical US response, grumblings in Iran’s progressive communities started to percolate.  Former President Khatami, a well known reformist, had been vacillating on whether to jump into this year’s election, but with Ahmadinejad’s fiery late January speech failing to rouse, Khatami decided to toss his hat into the ring, offering the Iranian people a real, sharp choice in how they want their country to proceed.  Last week, Ahmadinejad had to backtrack, saying

The Iranian nation is prepared to talk. However, these talks should be held in a fair atmosphere in which there is mutual respect.

This seems to be the first diplomatic round the US has won since Ahmadinejad has come to power.  The rhetoric has failed, at least temporarily.  Between now and June, the Iranian people will have to look at that extended hand to determine if they want to reach out for it.  Not that a Khatami victory will change the world overnight.  Despite real efforts from the Clinton administration, Khatami could not overcome interference from the theocracy to affect real change in the ’90s.  Still, it’s a chance and that is more than we had last month.



  1. nimh  •  Feb 17, 2009 @12:06 pm

    Hmmm … it’s definitely a thought-provoking take, but I’m sort of sceptical. Mostly about the underlying assumptions about Ahmejinedad’s prior popularity, which serves kind of as a baseline here for measuring Obama’s influence.

    You write that “At every turn, Ahmadinejad has come out on top in the view of his constituents and the larger Muslim world”. I’ll give you the larger Muslim world, but my impression was that ever since his election, the man had actually become less and less popular at home. And that his showboating abroad, while rallying the hardcore faithful, only strengthened the tide of economic discontent among the broader masses that that you mention, as his government was increasingly seen as incompetent or ineffective at improving economic conditions.

    So I think Khatami – who was, in his time, tremendously popular – would have been the odds-on favourite in terms of public opinion in any case. From what I remember reading, it was already widely expected last year that he would throw his hat in the race, and that only the many procedural and institutional roadblocks the conservatives would have (and will) throw in his way standing between him and electoral victory.

    And of course, if one thinks Khatami was the favoured candidate already anyway, then his popularity and his decision to throw his hat in the race is not a measure of Obama’s impact. But I’m going on memory here about news reports of Ahmejinedad’s impopularity at home and the occasional poll showing it, so my memory may be betraying me…

    Plus, that only addresses half your argument. Your other observation stands of course. The way Ahmejinedad appears to be backtracking rapidly now would seem to be a clear Obama success.

  2. nimh  •  Feb 17, 2009 @12:13 pm

    Hmm, I guess I might be wrong … in August 2007, at least, two years after his election, 52%of Iranians thought Ahmadinejad’s views were “very similar” to those of the Iranian population, and another 25% said they were “somewhat similar”. That’s not exactly akin to a job approval question, but it doesn’t suggest wide rejection of the man. Of course that’s a year and a half ago, but still.

  3. engineer  •  Feb 17, 2009 @12:41 pm

    My impression is that there is significant discontent about his economic performance, but his aggressive international stand has propped up his support, much like Bush and 9-11. As long as you can unite everyone against a foreign foe, real or imagined, you can distract everyone from domestic issues or even make critisim “unpatriotic.”

  4. nimh  •  Feb 17, 2009 @12:48 pm

    EDIT: OTOH, there’s this:

    Reformist activists say their unofficial polling show that Khatami would beat Ahmadinejad by a two-to-one margin. “The surveys may show great support for Khatami,” says Majid Hosseini, a political analyst in the camp of the Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, “but the reformists are ignoring an important factor: our surveys show that those supporters won’t actually show up at the polls to vote. They won’t participate, because they have already been through this scenario for two terms and nothing happened.”

    And for an example of the kind of reporting on Ahmedinejad’s impopularity I mentioned, there’s this from last December (though it also mentions his strongholds in rural areas and in the security apparatus):

    The president is increasingly unpopular, his economic policies are blamed for 30 percent annual inflation [..]. However, [..] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the subject of incessant grumbling and the butt of jokes zinging from cell phone to cell phone via text message. Yet with presidential elections six months away, he’s still the man to beat. [..]

    Khatami, who served two terms as president from 1997 to 2005, has emerged as the opposition’s best hope. An intense, behind-the-scenes campaign is under way to persuade him to run, according to Iranian political figures and analysts. “Khatami looks like a savior to the people right now,” said one analyst who requested anonymity because he feared retribution. [..]

    Ahmadinejad has lost the support of virtually every other major constituency in Iran. Tehran’s powerful merchant class, the bazaaris, are angered by the rampant inflation and a proposed value-added tax that the government was forced to postpone in October after shopkeepers closed their doors in protest.

    Young, upscale Tehranis express frustration with the dearth of economic opportunities and restrictions on social life, which had been loosened during Khatami’s tenure.

    Even Iran’s conservative religious establishment, based in the holy city of Qom, is said to be alienated by what they perceive as Ahmadinejad’s attempts to reduce their power while ruling on social issues.

    EDIT – oh, hadnt seen you there in the meantime! That’s the question, then, really – to what extent has he succeeded in using his posturing abroad to “unite everyone against a common foe”? My impression is that he’s mostly failed in doing that, especially over time.

  5. engineer  •  Feb 17, 2009 @2:07 pm

    It’s interesting to see how it’s playing out. One pro-government newspaper threatened Khatami today saying he’s a pawn of the US. Last week, Khatami was mobbed. (Funny how all the best links for these items are not from the US). The last thing Khatami needs is for Obama to make some sort of comment about the election. To his credit, Obama just continues to go with the “we’ll look for areas of common interest” type remarks. I think by now that Bush would have tossed a few comments in there and stirred things up.