Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel last week was the latest in a phalanx of Obama administration officials visiting the region to attempt to resuscitate talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians and conduct a diplomatic offensive against an Iranian regime making steady progress toward a nuclear weapon.
President Obama spent much of his first year in office attempting to achieve a major breakthrough in the Middle East. His primary focus was on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he also attempted to reach out to the Muslim world writ large through his June speech in Cairo and attempts to engage countries such as Syria and Iran.
The Obama administration came into office making the argument that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem was the key to solving other regional issues, such as the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. The recent visit of Undersecretary of State William Burns to Damascus and the announcement of a new U.S. ambassador to that country are signs that the administration continues to believe that it can remove Syria from Iran’s orbit, a process unlikely to yield success.
There is indeed a linkage between all of these regional problems, but the Obama administration has the sequence reversed. Regime change in Iran, not continued pressure on Israel and the Palestinians, represents the best chance this administration has to remake the Middle East.
Despite the apparent success of the Iranian regime in limiting the impact of protests on the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Shah, the Green Movement is not going away. It is only a matter of time until the Islamic Republic falls and the Obama administration risks getting caught on the wrong side of history when it does.
There has been much debate about who is leading the Iranian opposition and what it represents, but what is clear is that if the movement succeeds in bringing about the fall of the current regime, the new leadership that results will likely be interested in bringing Iran back into the international community, not heightening tensions with its neighbors and the West.
On the nuclear issue, it is true that Iran has for decades sought a nuclear weapon. However, it is difficult to imagine a reformist government making this a top priority. Instead, Iran’s new leaders will likely want to remove the yoke of international sanctions against Iran, restoring Iran’s banking and financial ties with the rest of the world. They will thus be more open to negotiations on the nuclear issue than the current regime has shown itself to be despite repeated offers by the United States and its allies over much of the last decade.
A democratic Iran would be a more stable force in the region. Its government would be interested in rebuilding the Iranian economy that President Ahmadinejad has run into the ground and improving conditions for the Iranian people, not transferring weapons to militants in Iraq and Afghanistan to kill American soldiers.
It would be less likely to use terrorism as a tool of its foreign policy. Iran spends millions of dollars each year in cash and weapons transfers to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. A post-Islamic Republic regime would realize that this is a waste of Iranian resources that could be better spent at home modernizing Iran’s faltering economy.
The loss of their state sponsor would be a huge blow to these groups. If Hamas was severely weakened, there actually may be prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, freeing the Palestinian authority to agree to a grand bargain. Hezbollah would be severely undermined, creating new opportunities for the Lebanese people and lessening the risk of another conflict with Israel.
Regime change in Iran would also deprive Syria of its connections to the hard-line military and intelligence establishments in Tehran and force it to abandon its role as a transfer point for weapons going to terrorists in Lebanon. This would further the Obama administration’s and the European Union’s efforts to bring Syria into the West more than any visit by a senior administration official or a group of Western businessmen and would have the added benefit of reversing Turkey’s recent descent into the orbit of Tehran and Damascus as well as Lebanon’s renewed flirtation with Damascus.
Finally, the success of the Green Movement would send a message to Islamists throughout the Middle East and beyond that the tide is turning and that leaders who distort the Islamic faith to condone terror and provoke confrontation with the West cannot maintain their grip on power indefinitely.
Given all of the above, there should be little doubt about whether the United States should be more vocal in its support for the Iranian opposition. Unfortunately, President Obama appears to be clinging to his failed strategy despite very few signs of success.
Engagement has failed. It is time for the United States to actively support the democratic opposition in Iran via increased U.S. broadcasting, technology, and restoration of funding for programs that highlight Iranian human rights abuses.
The regime in Tehran is on its way out. If President Obama is serious about creating the “new beginning” that he spoke about during his Cairo speech, he needs to realize that the path to a new Middle East rests on the shoulders of those campaigning for their freedom in the streets of Iran, not via renewed peace process diplomacy.
Jamie M. Fly is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. He served in the Bush administration from 2005 to 2009.