Iran: Speak Softly BUT…Mr President

On 26 January, 1900 US President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to Henry L. Sprague of the Union Club of New York in which he wrote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far.” The US press seized on the phrase and a new foreign policy doctrine was born – ‘Big Stick Diplomacy.’ Last week in New York, Iran’s President Rouhani signaled a desire to open a new chapter in US-Iranian relations. There are however two ways of looking at Iran’s demarche – an optimistic and a pessimistic view.

The optimistic view is that Rouhani is genuine in his desire to improve relations. The September 27 telephone call between the two presidents and the meeting between the US and Iranian foreign ministers were indeed important political landmarks in an otherwise barren landscape of mutual mistrust. At the very least Rouhani’s style is a welcome change to the cartoonish anti-Americanism of his immediate predecessor President Ahmadinejad. Moreover, Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran would re-start nuclear talks “without preconditions” is also an important break with the past.

There is also clear evidence that Western-led sanctions are damaging both Iran’s economy and society and thus undermining the regime’s grip on power. Moreover, Rouhani was met with protests from hard-liners upon his return from New York which suggests the shift in policy is genuine. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayotallah Khamenei has also issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons and their use.

However, even the optimists must prepare for a long haul. A former British ambassador Sherard Cowper-Cowles recently said that in any diplomatic dealings with Iran form is almost as important as substance. Therefore, Rouhani’s New York demarche is at best a prelude to a play of many acts. Dealing with Iran will thus require patient engagement with all the diplomatic niceties and conventions observed if there is to be any chance of an enduring political settlement.

There is also a pessimistic view to be had. Rouhani is a seasoned diplomat, a sophisticated and considered leader. However, his assertion that Iran is not seeking, nor has it ever sought, the development of nuclear weapons is simply not credible. Rather, the pessimists believe Iran has noted the West’s difficulties over Syria and has concluded the US and its European allies no longer have the will to use force. With ‘Big Stick Diplomacy’ dead, now is the time to sow confusion between the US and its allies.

Specifically, Tehran sees the September 3 vote of Britain’s Parliament not to authorize force against the Assad regime and President Obama’s own problems with Congress over Syria as further indicators of a lack of Western resolve. Critically, after a bruising decade Europe in particular has abandoned any pretence to coercion in foreign and security policy and Americans are retreating into sequestration-driven isolationism.

Therefore, the suggestion by Rouhani that Western-led sanctions are damaging the life-quality of Iranians simply tells Western politicians and publics exactly what they want to hear. If that is correct Iran could be seeking to isolate the US in the so-called ‘E3+3’ meetings at which Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the US discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The US and its allies will thus awake one morning to an Iranian fait accomplimi announcing to the world it has become a nuclear weapons power which will irrevocably change an already unstable balance of power across the Middle East and beyond.

In that light, Rouhani’s comments then take on an entirely different strategic hue. Even the carefully staged protests upon Rouhani’s return from New York would be part of an attempt to de-stabilize US policy. Indeed, Rouhani’s very reasonableness could thus be a greater threat to US and allied policy than Ahmadinejad’s hysteria as conflict-weary Americans and Europeans are suckered by a smile and a wave. Sadly, in the hard reality of international politics there is a world of difference between appearance, intent, and action. Tehran is simply buying time.

Why now? According to several Western intelligence agencies Iran is about to enter a critical phase in the development of a nuclear weapon. Iran has much to gain by speaking softly as it develops a big stick. Therefore, President Obama would be wise to recall the sage advice of President Theodore Roosevelt as he contemplates the US response to Iran’s charm offensive.

Speak softly but carry a big stick and you could go far, Mr. President.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Image: President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Photo: White House/Pete Souza)