May 11th, 2009 by MESH
From Michael Mandelbaum
To engage or not to engage? That is the question hanging over American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran—or at least it was the central question for the United States until the advent of the Obama administration, which appears to have settled on proceeding with engagement. That decision, however, raises another important question: what can engagement be expected to accomplish?
Stating the question that way leads immediately to two problems. First, the word “engagement” is a vague, slippery one. In the matrimonial context it refers to a promise (to marry) that may or may not be fulfilled—an apt description, it would seem, of American engagement with that other tyrannical regime that is ideologically hostile to the West and aspires to nuclear weapons, North Korea. Second, the United States has had, in the three decades since the mullahs came to power in Tehran, considerable informal, unofficial, and quasi-official contact with the regime and its supporters. Still, if engagement is taken to mean official diplomatic relations, there have been none since the overthrow of the Shah, and it is worth asking what pursuing such relations might now achieve.
Those who advocate engagement with Iran often invoke a particular kind of analogy in support of their preference: American relations with communist countries during the Cold War. The comparison is a fair one: Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union—like Iran—are or have been countries with rulers committed to a radical anti-western ideology. While analogies cannot, of course, prove anything, they can be suggestive. What, then, do the histories of American relations with these three countries suggest about the prospects for engagement with Iran?
The experience with Cuba is often cited as evidence of the futility of non-engagement. For five decades the United States has shunned formal ties with, and indeed has maintained an economic embargo on, Cuba. Yet the Castro brothers remain in power. As with Iran, the Obama administration apparently plans to expand contacts with Cuba, and while this may turn out to bring some benefit to the United States and the people of the island, the Cuban case does not demonstrate the general utility of engagement, because Cuba has not been isolated from the world, but only from the United States. Other Western countries have long maintained diplomatic and economic ties with the Castro regime—there has been, that is, plenty of engagement—without noticeably expanding the freedoms or enhancing the economic welfare of the average Cuban.
It is worth noting that despite what they publicly proclaim, neither the Castros nor the Iranian mullahs seem actually to want political and economic normalization with the United States. If this is, in fact, the case, it is the most persuasive argument for such normalization of which I am aware.
If Cuba is often cited to demonstrate the folly of avoiding official contact with a hostile communist country, American relations with China are just as frequently offered as evidence of the virtues of having such contacts. After two decades of estrangement following the communist conquest of the mainland in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the United States launched a diplomatic initiative to Beijing that led, ultimately, to the Nixon visit of February 1972 and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in 1978. The result was a strategic alignment helpful to both countries in containing the Soviet Union and the growth of economic ties to the point that China has become a major American trading partner.
Over the last three decades, moreover, China has undergone considerable liberalization in its economy and some, although far less, in its political system. Sino-American ties are not ideal, but they are far better than relations between the United States and Iran. If engagement can achieve with the mullahs in Tehran what Washington’s policies of nearly four decades have accomplished with the communists in Beijing, this would count as a substantial gain for American foreign policy.
The pattern of Sino-American relations does not, however, illustrate the virtues of engagement so much as it reflects the power of circumstances. Mao Zedong was willing to put aside his ideological aversion to the United States in the early 1970s because his country was severely threatened by the Soviet Union. The two communist giants fought a small-scale, two-stage border war in 1969 and in the second round China was the clear loser. Moscow proceeded to deploy a huge army on its border with China and suggested—to some members of the Nixon administration, at least—that it was seriously contemplating a strike on China’s then-small stockpile of nuclear weapons.
In these dire circumstances, China behaved the way classical international relations theory would predict: it moved closer to the United States to offset Soviet power on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If the mullahs were comparably threatened— by, say, a resurgent, neo-imperial Russia—they might well reach out to Washington as did the Chinese in the 1970s. But they are not so threatened and will not, in the foreseeable future, face any such threat. Even if they did, alliances of convenience often prove to be ephemeral. The American alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War did not, after all, prevent the Cold War after Germany had been defeated.
As for the close economic ties between the United States and China, these have their roots in economic decisions made by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, primarily for reasons of domestic politics rather than international security—decisions of a kind the rulers of the Islamic republic show no sign of making. The American experience with China has, therefore, little or nothing to teach us about the prospects with Iran.
That is not the case, however, for the history of Soviet-American relations. The United States remained aloof from the Bolshevik regime from its seizure of power in St. Petersburg in 1917 until 1933, when the newly installed Roosevelt administration established diplomatic relations with the communist government that had moved its capital to Moscow. The two countries were allies during the Second World War, but from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1980s they were as estranged and hostile as the United States and Iran are today.
Throughout the Cold War, however they maintained regular diplomatic contact, arranged cultural exchanges and athletic contests, staged summit meetings, and conducted elaborate and protracted negotiations about armaments, particularly nuclear weapons. All this contact comes under the general heading of engagement; in Soviet-American relations there was a good deal of it. I believed at the time and believe in retrospect that some of this engagement was useful; the end-of-Cold-War arms control agreements were, in my judgement, exceedingly useful. (Those interested in the reasons for this evaluation may wish to read Chapter 4 of my 2002 book The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century.)
Yet the cumulative impact of all that engagement on the overall relationship between the two nuclear superpowers was, while certainly not trivial, at best marginal. Two separate features were central to the relationship: post-1945 Soviet-American relations may be divided into two unequal parts, each with a single defining feature: from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s, deterrence; from the late 1980s to December, 1991, regime change.
So I suspect it will be with American relations with Iran, with or without engagement. The United States will have to rely mainly on deterrence in its relations with Tehran (and deterring a nuclear-armed Iran will be more difficult than deterring the Iran of today) unless and until the Islamic Republic falls and is succeeded by a regime less hostile to the United States and the West. This is not to say that establishing diplomatic relations with Iran is necessarily wrong, or removing the mullahs from power is feasible or that trying to do so is desirable. It is rather to say that what its advocates hope to achieve with engagement will probably only come about through regime change.
Michael Mandelbaum delivered these remarks at a symposium on “Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?” convened by MESH at Harvard University on April 30.
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