Read this now. A lot is concealed under the rubric of "engagement" in the post-June 12 era, and Cohen teases it out. For instance:
1. Engagement is foundational for Obama, as is divestiture of what Cohen calls "emotion" from foreign policy, as part of the meta-point of combating what his campaign advisers-turned-White House advisers (McDonough and Rhodes in particular) call the "politics of fear." You knew this already. Critics will call this engagement for its own sake or engagement for the theological belief that it will work. Neither is true, since, on the former point, Obama thinks that engagement is an untested tactic that might unlock a less bellicose Iran and, on the latter, Obama has already said Iran has till about the end of the year or a little after to respond to the overture and Dennis Ross is thinking through what Plan B ought to contain. But it’s accurate to say that there’s a lot of emotional investment from the administration in Plan A working, and that if it doesn’t, a dispirited administration will cobble together a more punitive policy package.
2. It’s too pat to say definitively that the Iranian opposition doesn’t want U.S. support. I’ve written this a lot since June 12, because the evidence hasn’t been there that the opposition wants American aid. Cohen, who’s sympathetic to the argument that the U.S. ought to stay out of Iranian politics, reports some anecdotes of Iranian protesters asking him, "Where’s Obama?" He doesn’t spend much time fleshing that out, but it makes me think that I should revise and extend. At least some protesters seem to want moral support — there is no evidence that they want material support — and the Obama administration doesn’t want to be locked in to not negotiating with an Iranian government assembled by a thief. This is an evident conflict with the opposition, but:
3. There is more of an appetite for negotiations with the U.S. in Iran than appears to be the case. One of the more illuminating aspects of the piece comes when Cohen reveals that a small group of Iranian foreign affairs experts has been convened by Teheran’s Center for Strategic Research — Iran experts will have to tell me how influential that Center is — have been "meeting every two weeks to review how to respond to the U.S. offer." They report to Rafsanjani, so if I were a policymaker I would have to presume that this group isn’t influential to Khamanei, but Cohen further reports that there are rumors that Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Khamanei, may lead an Iranian delegation. Fascinatingly, Velayati has unfavorably contrasted "Britain and France" to the U.S., which Cohen perceptively reads as "the Iranian authorities trying to keep their U.S. options open."
But what about the opposition? The right to nuclear energy is a consensus issue for Iranians, embraced by Moussavi as well as Ahmadinejad, and, for that matter, Obama, who has recognized that the Nonproliferation Treaty contains the right to enrichment. That’s the basis for both engagement and a wedge in favor of the opposition.
Hadian said Iran has looked at everyone in the policy mix — Burns, Ross, Talwar, Vali Nasr (an Iranian-American aide to Richard Holbrooke, the State Department envoy), Gary Samore (a nonproliferation expert at the N.S.C.), Tony Blinken (a national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden) — and the general feeling was positive. “What Obama has already done for the United States in the Muslim world is unbelievable,” he said. “It is not easy for anyone here to attack him.”
Hadian is part of that Center for Strategic Research team. Taking that seriously, there’ll be a popular price to pay if the Iranian leadership doesn’t engage. No Iranian can believe that the current administration is as hostile to Iran as Carter-through-Bush.
4. Dennis Ross is not the inflexible hardline fanatic that progressives believe him to be, at least if you listen to his friends. Ray Takeyh is co-signing for him. "I’ve never had a conversation with him where he says we shouldn’t consider something because it would cross some Israeli red line. That’s just not where we are. The idea that he’s just looking for engagement with Iran to tick some box before moving to harsh measures is just wrong and fraudulent." I trust Takeyh, frankly. There’s more rumor than fact in the narrative of Ross being a monkeywrench in the administration’s engagement strategy, and it strikes me as a holdover from the deeply divided Bush administration. That simply doesn’t fit with how the Obama foreign policy team generally works. But that’s not to say there aren’t important differences. An anonymous State Department official says, "Ross’s bad habit is preconsultation with the Israelis."
But that might be an asset in Iranian eyes. Hadian:
"…And because I know we cannot normalize unless Israeli concerns are addressed, I’ve argued that Ross would be an important assurance, someone able to convince the American Jewish lobby that any eventual agreement is workable.” That view, he suggested, had gained some traction in Tehran.
Cohen also provides the most compelling rationale for moving Ross to the White House that I’ve yet heard. Obama, pissed at coming back from Saudi Arabia without cooperation on Iran, turns to someone he trusts who knows all the relevant Arab leaders. And, for Dave Weigel: who the Iranians think they fucking with? He’s the fucking boss. 745, white-on-white. That’s fucking Ross.
5. Israel is, uh, acting irrationally about Iran. Israel has a lot of nuclear weapons and will win an arms race with Iran. Martin Indyk:
“Remember, Israel has second-strike capability,” he told me. “It wouldn’t be easy to live with an Iran that’s a virtual nuclear power, but at the end of the day, it’s not a complete disaster.”
Dude, when you’ve lost Martin Indyk! The danger, seen by the more sophisticated Israelis, is that "the change in the balance of power with a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran could be so decisive that Jews would begin to leave Israel." Well, OK, but then the rational move on Israel’s part is to co-sign for Obama’s effort at reaching detente with the Iranians and moving Iran into a nonzero international order. No one seriously believes that an Israeli strike would do more than delay an Iranian nuclear program, and the costs — an Iran united behind a bellicose leader at the moment when bellicosity has never come with greater domestic dangers — outweigh the benefits.
That, of course, isn’t to say that states won’t act irrationally. They do, all the time. And here’s the best argument for having Dennis Ross in the White House. Maybe Netanyahu’s people are batshit enough to think that Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are self-hating Jews. No one is batshit enough to think that Dennis Ross doesn’t have Israel’s best interests at heart, even if he’s not the inflexible Israeli proxy progressives (myself included) tend to see. Israeli panic over Iran is a fact. Someone’s got to deal with it. Who better than Ross?