Why Not to Engage Iran (Yet)

Barack Obama is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s only hope.

Times are tough for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With presidential elections six months away, he finds himself under attack from all sides. Sixty Iranian economists wrote a letter recently protesting his failed policies that have led to record-high unemployment. Self-described reformers such as presidential hopeful Mehdi Karoubi lambast him for elevating Iran to first place on Israel's hit list, and even supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his most important supporter, wavers at times.

Clearly the Iranian president needs some help, but who, among his friends, could boost his popularity? Hugo Chvez? Hassan Nasrallah? Moqtada al-Sadr? Dont bet on it. He needs much more than accolades from Iran's allies and snapshots of friendly handshakes during their state visits to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad is far more likely to get an assist from Barack Obama -- or rather, all the advisors on the U.S. president-elects foreign-policy team who keep talking about the need for the United States to talk to Iran. No one should be surprised that Ahmadinejad sent a personal letter to Obama right after the election congratulating him on his victory, becoming the first Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to extend such a gesture. Most Iranians badly want to end their isolation from the United States and the world at large. No doubt, whoever can claim credit for an end to 30 years of hostility with the United States will be the country's hero. The risk of bolstering Ahmadinejad's legitimacy is far more serious than the president-elect and his advisors seem to realize.

Obama's willingness to hold unconditional talks with hostile regimes, including Iran, came to define his foreign-policy platform on the campaign trail. Although Obama seemed to back away from this position shortly after the election, saying that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, signals from his inner circle reaffirm the president-elects earlier statements. Even Dennis Ross -- Middle East envoy during the Clinton administration, a leading advocate for Israel, and now a key advisor to Obama -- says the United States should talk to Iran through low-level channels at first in order to pave the way for a dialogue at a higher level. Several Iran experts at centrist think tanks are urging Obama to go even further and offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government as well as other incentives in an attempt to halt the country's nuclear enrichment program that would allow it to produce a nuclear bomb.

Under Iranian law, all candidates for the parliament and the presidency must be approved by the Guardian Council, a panel dominated by conservative clerics appointed by the supreme leader. At this point, it is unclear if Khamenei will give the nod to permit the controversial Ahmadinejad to run for a second term. But if U.S.-Iran relations improve between now and the Iranian presidential election, credit is likely to fall to Ahmadinejad and his hard-line tactics, boosting his chances significantly in June. Reconciliation with Washington would vindicate Ahmadinejad, whose stinging rhetoric against the United States and Israel has caused his critics to accuse him of making Iran more of a pariah and to demand that he be denied the chance to run for reelection.

This is precisely why some interesting jockeying for power has been unfolding inside the Islamic Republic since Obama was elected. Many factions, even those whose rhetoric suggests the opposite, see the benefits that would come from improved relations with the United States and want to be in a position to bring them about.

Yet Iranian political elites seemed unsure of how to react to Ahmadinejad's letter to Obama. The ultraconservative newspaper Resalat followed the president's lead with an editorial offering advice to Obama on how to repair the relationship. Meanwhile, the right-wing daily newspaper Jomhouri Islami countered that, if any opening from Iran were to be extended to the United States, it should come from Khamenei, the supreme leader, and not from Ahmadinejad, an elected official. Other potential presidential rivals to Ahmadinejad, such as the parliamentarian Ali Larijani, have been more subtle in downplaying the importance of the letter. Larijani viewed Obama's response to the letter as noncommittal, according to the New York Times, and said the United States was not moving in the right direction as far as Iran was concerned.

This behavior reflects a pattern in Iran, a country obsessed with its relationship with the United States. Each time an end to Iran's estrangement with the United States appears to be in sight, various competing political factions try to ensure that it happens on their watch. Back in March 2000, when Mohammad Khatami was president, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came close to apologizing to Iran for the United States involvement in Irans 1953 CIA-backed coup. "[I]t is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs," Albright said.

Instead of celebrating the historic gesture, Khatami's rivals condemned the United States for not going far enough in extending a direct apology. I was living in Iran at that time and was able to witness up close the great fear among conservatives that Khatami and his reform movement would gain all the praise and harvest all the political capital for an improvement in relations with the United States. Thanks to these conservatives and the United States second thoughts, this never happened and Iranians hopes were dashed once again.

In many ways, Iran's leaders view Obama's election as similar to 2000, when bilateral relations seem poised for a breakthrough. But considering the United States weakness in the Middle East and Irans strengthened position in the region, Iranians are more optimistic that this time the United States is more motivated to initiate a thaw. If the Obama administration does intend to talk to Iran, however, it might be wise to wait until after the Iranian election in June. Otherwise, all the talk over the coming years is likely to be with Ahmadinejad.



Europe vs. the Pirates

It may be a quixotic mission, but the European Union’s naval expedition against Somalia’s high-seas troublemakers could be its crucial first step toward becoming an independent military power.

Just as the Barbary pirates hamstrung European monarchs in the early 19th century, their Somali counterparts are proving maddeningly difficult to defeat today. This is a thorny problem, and an intriguing new European initiative may well fail to bring the pirates to heel. Yet it just might bring Europe one step closer to becoming a real military power.

On Dec. 8, the European Union will launch Operation Atalanta, designed to protect shipping from piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Up to six warships from several European countries, along with numerous maritime aircraft, will be involved. The deployment may or may not deter pirates, but it already has Euroskeptics worried. Atalanta represents the latest salvo in the fight over an independent European Union military capabilityand for the moment it appears the French are winning.

The European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) is what amounts to the EUs military wing. Security and defense have historically represented the weakest links in the EU fabric, but in recent years the scope of the ESDP has grown substantially. The EU is currently involved in 14 missions abroad, including the deployment of 3,000 troops to Chad and various other, smaller deployments in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The EU has also created 15 battlegroups, mostly multinational in composition, each consisting of 1,500 soldiers.

Generally speaking, France has consistently pursued a more assertive military role for the EU, while Britain has tried to limit EU-sponsored military cooperation. France sees an independent European military capability as an alternative to NATO, and thus a counterweight to U.S. influence. The British place a strong value on their relationship with the United States, and consequently prefer NATO. At stake in this debate is not only the political balance of power within Europe, but also the character of Europes contribution to international order.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the French have taken a leading role in the fight against piracy. In April, French commandos operating from the helicopter carrier Jeanne d'Arc seized several Somali pirates after paying a ransom. The French arrested more pirates in October, later turning them over to authorities in Puntland.

The French undoubtedly see the fight against piracy as an ideal venue for the application of EU military force. To put it crudely, nobody likes pirates, and nobodylegal niceties asidereally minds too much if you shoot them. Pirates represent a classic enemy of humanity, such that few of the messy questions associated with peacekeeping and peace enforcement (whos the bad guy, are we doing more harm than good, and so forth) arise. Pirates excepted, everyone benefits from cracking down on piracy. And though pirates do shoot back, they present no serious challenge to a modern naval warship, meaning that the EU pays no price in blood. If the EU can conduct successful antipiracy operations, the military prestige of the organization will grow both inside and outside Europe.

Hence, some Euroskeptics are fretting. In the December edition of Warships: International Fleet Review, a British maritime magazine, Conservative MEP and defense spokesman Geoffrey Van Orden challenged the decision to deploy warships under the aegis of the EU, arguing that it will draw from the same navies that are already contributing ships to operations in the area, it will add no value, and cause unnecessary complication, confusion, and duplicationall so that the EU can nail its flag to another military operation and add to the plausibility of its narrative on EU defense policy. Van Orden went on to bemoan the fact that the French Navy has grown larger than the Royal Navy and that the latter no longer has the power to unilaterally sweep the seas of pirates.

Perhaps in response to British concerns, Operation Atalanta will be commanded by a vice admiral from the Royal Navy, Philip Jones. French Defense Minister Herv Morin made the connection between naming a British commander and earning British cooperation on European defense explicit, saying on Nov. 10, Britain is a great maritime power. It is a nice symbol that this operation be commanded by a British officer and from a British headquarters. It is a good symbol of the evolution in European defense, and I would say, of its coming of age.

Both Van Orden and Morin have a point. Its unclear what effect Europes deployment will have on the problem of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Even if the EU contingent significantly increases the number of ships available for fighting pirates, the patrols may not suffice. More ships help, but narrow rules of engagement limit the ability of warships to respond to pirate attacks and to apprehend pirates who have successfully seized ships. Moreover, NATO might have otherwise extended and expanded its Somali mission in the absence of the EU, or the individual states of Europe might have stepped up.

The deployment does, however, reinforce the idea that the European Union is interested in becoming a serious regional security player. Contrary to what the Euroskeptics argue, this might be a good thing. Although the EUs antipiracy efforts could ultimately fail, Operation Atalanta helps put the EU in the useful habit of contributing to international order outside the structure of NATO. The distinction is not merely about substituting one acronym for another: For European domestic constituencies and international audiences, the EU presents a less menacing profile than the U.S.-led NATO, increasing its likelihood of success.

The fight for freedom of the seas also carries a symbolic implication for the maintenance of the international system. Great powers from Rome to the British Empire took action against pirates; the EU stakes a claim to being an international player of consequence by continuing the struggle.