In an era when few admit mistakes, former Obama administration adviser Dennis Ross should be applauded for his frankness:
In June 2009, I was serving in President Barack Obama’s administration as the secretary of state’s special advisor on Iran and was part of the decision-making process. Because we feared playing into the hands of the regime and lending credence to its claim that the demonstrations were being instigated from the outside, we adopted a low-key posture.
In retrospect, that was a mistake. We should have shined a spotlight on what the regime was doing and mobilized our allies to do the same; we should have done our best to provide news from the outside and to facilitate communication on the inside. We could have tried to do more to create social media alternatives, making it difficult for the regime to block some of these platforms.
That gives me great joy, and not because (well not only because) that was the position we (and other Obama administration critics) took in 2009, but because it should serve as an example. If “mistakes were made,” we needn’t repeat them. If certain people were mistaken, they can now give us the benefit of hindsight. It’s not every day you get a second chance in international diplomacy, especially one as potentially far-reaching as this one.
It is true that the protests in Iran are different in origin (more economic and anti-corruption than a rebuke over a stolen election), size (smaller) and breadth (much more widespread). The protests now are not driven by sophisticated elites but by “the lower and lower-middle classes.” We have a president lacking international credibility, and consequently our European allies are deathly afraid that the president will unilaterally pull the plug on the Iran deal. We also have different facts on the ground regionally — namely, Iran’s expensive and extensive international aggression, which saps resources from an economy struggling to rebound after sanctions. In short, the United States has more leverage but a worse messenger.
As in war, you go into diplomacy with the tools you have and the deficits you endure. Given all that, five principles should guide us.
First, Congress and not the president should do most of the talking. President Trump’s tweets are unhelpful insofar as his image as an international crank, bully and ignoramus is well-established. Even the State Department’s statements (which have been well-calibrated) are preferable to Trump’s outbursts. The man who calls the media the “opposition” and purveyors of fake news and who literally embraces Saudi autocrats is not a poster boy for Iranian human rights and civil liberties.
Congress, which passed sanctions last year and has consistently spoken out on human rights (solid statements came from Republicans and Democrats alike this week), can signal the support of the American people through resolutions and hearings that expose the Iranian regime’s corruption and international aggression. The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate foreign relations committees can coordinate that effort. They, not unhinged Trump sycophants, should be the voice of Congress.
Second, this presents a golden opportunity for Trump to get out of the corner he has painted himself into with regard to the travel ban. He should immediately suspend the ban, at least with regard to Iran. It’s a foolish and insulting policy, a symbol of American antagonism and stupidity (barring the oppressed and victims of terrorism; omitting countries such as Saudi Arabia), and unhelpful to potential pro-Western Iranians who want to access our universities and economy — and then return to Iran. Trump can get bipartisan praise on this front and take action while demonstrating that he can be rational (he can — right?) when presented with new facts on the ground.
Third, it’s time to repair the breach with our European allies. Ross notes, “The European Union, and especially the French and Germans, has been largely silent so far. It will not respond to Trump’s calls but should be encouraged, nonetheless, to stand up for the human rights of those engaging in peaceful protest and who are now facing a tougher crackdown from the regime.” The administration should make a straight-up bargain: The United States will not pull the plug on the Iran deal unilaterally and without consultation with them (something we should do in any event) and they will join the international chorus of support for peaceful protesters (something they should do in any event). As for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Trump can satisfy himself by saying the Iran deal is irrelevant to the current situation (it is), and he’s pursuing an un-Obama Iran policy. (Doing the opposite of Obama seems to delight him.)
Fourth, we need to cease our slobbering over Arab regimes whose human rights records are awful. We should speak up about human rights in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both in private and in public. It will give us more credibility when we then act on behalf of oppressed Iranians. Even as we move toward greater regional security cooperation (which is in the Arab states’ own interest), we can continue to push forward on human rights. The days of divorcing human rights from foreign policy strategy need to end.
Fifth, we need to force Iran to pay an even greater price for its foreign adventurism, which is now the subject of Iranians’ ire. “Trump has said he wants to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” Ross reminds us. “At this point, however, his administration has done very little to raise the costs to the Iranians for their regional actions. In Syria, the linchpin of Iran’s effort to expand its sphere of control, the administration does not have an anti-Iran strategy.” That may entail greater support for Kurds (who as a bonus also fight the Islamic State) and for non-jihadi actors in Syria as well. We should formalize a regional defense alliance with nations combating Iranian aggression.
The administration has many shortcomings but also has some strong cards to play. Let’s hope someone in there has the insight and ability to minimize the former (including muffling the president) and maximize the latter.