Reading White House Tea Leaves on Iran Getting Difficult


steve clemons david axelrod mysa khalaf rtca dinner 2009.jpg
(Washington Note publisher Steve Clemons, Obama political guru David Axelrod, and Al Jazeera’s Mysa Khalaf)
Yesterday evening, I chaired a dinner featuring Austan Goolsbee, the charismatic economic guru of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and a key adviser to the President in the White House. The meeting was off the record — fascinating and insightful, but off the record. Just keep in mind that there are 6-8 million vacant homes out there. Not good.
What wasn’t off the record at the dinner was my conversation with Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Jonathan Weisman who, like me, has been frustrated with senior White House officials apparently sending inconsistent messages about some important policy questions.
Weisman made the point that listening to Barack Obama, he seemed to be saying that America’s relations with Iran would be bounded by questions about what international norms Iran chose to abide by or ignore. In other words, Weisman was reading the Obama tea leaves and heard that America was going to reinstitute “conditionality” in the terms of its engagement with Iran.
Shortly before I chatted with Jonathan Weisman, I heard David Axelrod’s exchange with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s The Situation Room who while at first appropriately saying that Iran’s domestic turmoil was about a key struggle within Iran over its soul and direction and not about the United Sates, then said:

AXELROD: Well, I will just repeat what the president said today. All of this is now in the hands of the Iranians. They can choose to isolate themselves from the world through their behavior, or they can try and develop relationships. And we will await — we will wait and see what they do.

This sounds like conditionality on our engagement with Iran to me — but perhaps I am working too hard at trying to understand what the real meaning of David Axelrod’s statement is.
Jonathan Weisman called a senior national security adviser close to Barack Obama who allegedly said that there is no change in America’s course to engage Iran. No change in policy. No conditionality.
If the senior White House adviser knows the definitive truth of the situation, I am glad — because I agree with that policy position.
But one has to admit that David Axelrod’s comments — and even those of the President at a minimum flirt with the “conditionality” issue of future US talks with Iran — and that if we did take such a course, we will miss any opportunity to engineer a strategic shift in America’s relations with Iran, which happens to be right up near the top of America’s strategic priorities right now.
— Steve Clemons


16 comments on “Reading White House Tea Leaves on Iran Getting Difficult

  1. Carlos. F. says:

    It is a civil war, who do not see it? The ONU needs make something, how many people have to
    die for this situation to change?


  2. David says:

    Diplomacy can be war by other means, especially when it isn’t really diplomacy, but rather ultimatums which if agreed to eliminate the aggressor’s need to attack, but war is phyisical destruction and death, period. Diplomacy is not, although there can be diplomatic agreements which result in suffering and death, especially when elites in the client states sell out their own people to foreign interests purely for power and wealth. The US has a proud history along these lines, of course, both in the Americas south of the Rio Grande and in the Middle East.
    On the other hand, when the other nations are ones we cannot or do not see the need to bully, the diplomacy can actually be diplomacy. I think Obama has moved in the right direction in relation to El Salvador, and I’m hoping it’s a sign of things to come.
    Mexico we did invade. Canada we simply contemplated invading at one time. I guess not all that many Americans wanted to develeop settlements in Canada, Canada was not territory any longer in the hands of the savage red man, and we already had one side of the Great Lakes.


  3. ... says:

    kotzabasis = war 24/7 by any means possible, diplomatic or otherwise, so long as it’s not on those dark forces he’s yet to acknowledge within himself…


  4. kotzabasis says:

    Clemons in a lapse of ‘cocktail sotting’ forgets that diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means, to paraphrase Clausewitz. Like war, one deploys one’s intellectual armaments in the field of diplomacy on the condition that there is a high probability that one will come out a winner from the diplomatic contest. And the timing of the opening of this contest depends on the strengths and weaknesses of one’s enemy. Engineering “strategic shifts” and achieving “strategic priorities” depend on the condition that one’s enemy negotiates from a position of weakness.
    I would also like to remind Steve that although it’s certainly true that one has to accept the world as it is and perforce negotiate with one’s foes on this realist principle, as he stated at the New American Foundation conference, one accepts the world as it is ONLY for the purpose of CHANGING it. To merely accept it without the ability to change it, because one’s actions are based on wrong calculations, is a barren futile exercise.


  5. Don Bacon says:

    Good point, OA.
    Here we go again: The people our side kills are all terrorists, the people our appointed enemies kill are freedom fighters. And among the dead there are many more “terrorists” than “freedom fighters” — women and children first, killed with high explosive fragmentation warheads ‘Made in the USA.’


  6. Outraged American says:

    “…now is the time before more people are massacred?” Bill, we just
    killed a F-load of Pakistanis– where is your outrage?
    On a daily basis our tax dollars go to slaughtering Iraqis, Afghans,
    Pakistanis, PALESTINIANS and the odd Syrian or Lebanese.
    That’s OUR money being used to “liberate” people by killing them.
    Any more UsRael intervention in Iran will result in a real massacre
    so dry up those crocodile tears pronto.


  7. Bill R. says:

    UK Report from International Business Times-
    Rafsanjani has enough support to remove Khamanei
    This could change the equation. If so, now is the time before more people are massacred.


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    The first sentence in my previous comment is a quote from Franklin’s comment at 3:21


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    At this stage, it is hard to see how there will be any high-level public discussions taking place between now and 2012.
    Not unless senior people in Iran figure out a way to oust Khamenei, initiate some reforms, end the protests, schedule a new election and bring in international monitors.


  10. Franklin says:

    At this stage, it is hard to see how there will be any high-level public discussions taking place between now and 2012.
    Doing so would be political suicide for Obama.
    Low-level and mid-level discussions may be going forward without conditions behind the scenes — but even if they are — they too represent a political risk for Obama if they are exposed.
    Dealing with the current military dictatorship in Iran is going to be absolutely toxic for a while.


  11. JohnH says:

    There is absolutely NO difficulty reading the tea leaves. What a ridiculous statement. Obama has NOT disavowed the strategy of regime change or frozen any of the vast sums of money going to foster regime change. Those are the real tea leaves.
    But Obama is apparently having trouble generating the right noble rhetoric while driving to regime change.


  12. Sand says:

    “Clearly, some courses of action make it more difficult to develop relationships than others. Iran’s leadership can watch the American debate on television and hear what is happening in the US Congress as well as any of us can. They need to reflect on the fact that if they follow an extreme and isolationist course, they may find that Obama’s hands are tied by constricting domestic ropes.”
    repeat repeat repeat.
    However, I just hope they don’t take our *news* that seriously.


  13. jw says:

    the curse of being a blogger is that one needs constantly to be blogging…and the situation in Iran, between Iran and the west, and particularly between Iran and the US may not be susceptible to the minutia of the moment. The President made a good point when he said news organizations have short deadlines; he doesn’t. I always thought successful diplomacy was a bit like making custard…it takes a lot of stirring before things thicken, and periodic adjustment of the heat.


  14. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Israel speaks…..
    “Go screw yourself, Barry.”
    “BTW, If you see Harry, tell him thanks for the check, and to keep ’em coming. We could use another shipload of white phospohoprous, too.”
    Last update – 04:58 24/06/2009
    Barak authorizes construction of 300 new homes in West Bank
    By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
    Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank, defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth.
    Activists for Bimkom association, which works for justice and human rights in planning and knows a thing or two about the situation in the territories, have discovered that Barak recently authorized the Civil Administration to submit a plan for the construction of 300 housing units in the unauthorized outpost of Givat Habrecha, near the community of Talmon.


  15. Zathras says:

    The real meaning of David Axelrod’s statement is that he is keeper of the sacred image of Obama, a new President who does not yet trust the people on his foreign policy team to explain the course he has chosen to the American public.
    I saw Axelrod’s performance on CNN. He looked like exactly what he is, a campaign operative trying to tread water and get through a press interview while presenting his candidate in a favorable light and otherwise saying nothing. Hence his grim determination during almost five minutes of air time to stick so rigidly to his prepared talking points that he couldn’t answer an innocuous question about July 4th festivities at American embassies with either a “yes” or a “no.”
    At some point, Barack Obama may internalize the most basic lesson of last November, which is that he is actually the President now and needs to trust the explanation of his foreign policy to one (ideally) or more of the people who help him make his foreign policy.


  16. Dan Kervick says:

    Clearly, some courses of action make it more difficult to develop relationships than others. Iran’s leadership can watch the American debate on television and hear what is happening in the US Congress as well as any of us can. They need to reflect on the fact that if they follow an extreme and isolationist course, they may find that Obama’s hands are tied by constricting domestic ropes.


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