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Obama Tries It Both Ways On Iran

President Obama expressed hopes that Iran would become a “very successful regional power,” and that the U.S. would reopen its embassy in Tehran, in an interview that NPR published on Monday.

Obama acknowledged that Iran sponsors terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, that the country has attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that the country’s rhetoric toward the United States and Israel is often “incendiary.” But he insisted repeatedly that a peaceful nuclear deal was in the best interest of both Iran and the United States. (RELATED: Iran’s Supreme Leader Tweets Attacks On US, Israel)

He also claimed credit for an aggressive Iran policy — “a classic example of American leadership” — that strengthened sanctions on the country, isolating it and forcing it to the negotiating table.

The president’s remarks on Iran seemed to aim for a foreign audience rather than an American one. When asked whether he had “sufficient empathy for the Iranians, meaning do you feel you understand what it is they need to get a deal,” Obama said that he understood Iran’s “legitimate needs and concerns” for self-defense, but that he also had deep concerns about terrorism and human rights.

Audiences in the Middle East often scrutinize every word of American presidents’ statements on regional policy, fearing evidence of the United States’ intention to repress and exploit local powers. Recent history has shown that a stray sign of imperial overreach, even a concocted one, is enough to set back years’ worth of careful diplomacy and bridge-building.

On the other hand, many Americans and Middle Easterners continue to see Iran as posing a credible threat to regional stability. While it has proved an unlikely partner in the U.S.’ ongoing battle against the Islamic State terror group, it also has close ties to the Syrian government, and it seeks to balance against American-aligned states in the Gulf. From this perspective, wishing for a “successful” Iran is an insult to states that see Obama’s opening to Iran as a betrayal by a key ally. (RELATED: Iran Nuke Deal Deadline Looms, Skepticism Reigns In DC)

In a recent paper for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, researcher Dokhi Fassihian wrote that despite promises of reform by Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, executions, politically motivated arrests, and discrimination against women have all increased in the country since his election in 2013. She also pointed out that “Iran is the only country in the Middle East whose citizens consistently view political reform issues as top-tier concerns.” In other words, the blame for Iran’s human rights downturn is not the fault of the average Iranian voter.

According to Fassihian, progress on journalistic, religious, and other freedoms in Iran requires American and European leaders to lend ongoing pressure on the topic during the nuclear negotiations, and in the lead-up to the country’s parliamentary elections in 2016. Despite this urgent need, she writes, “the United Nations, the United
States, and the EU have failed to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran to end its abuses.”

The latest round of U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations concluded in November with a seven-month deadline extension, the second consecutive round to end with an extension instead of a deal.

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