The absurd debate over a potential Obama-Rouhani meeting

It looks like the possible meeting between president Obama and Iranian president Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings will not happen after all, apparently because it was “too complicated” for the Iranians.

But despite that setback, Stephen M. Walt makes the obvious point, that talking to foreign leaders whom one disagrees with should not be seen as so momentous.

Refusing to talk to people or countries with whom we differ is really just a childish form of spite and one the United States indulges in mostly because we can get away with it. But it also makes it more difficult to resolve differences in ways that would advance U.S. interests. In short, it’s dumb.

Did it really help U.S. diplomacy when we refused to recognize the Soviet Union until 1934? Were U.S. interests really furthered by our refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China for more than two decades after Mao’s forces gained control there? Has keeping Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the deep freeze since 1961– that’s nearly 53 years, folks — brought his regime crashing down, helped the lives of Cubans, or even advanced the political goals of Cuban-American exiles? Has our refusal to conduct direct talks with Iran slowed the development of its nuclear research program and helped us explore possible solutions to the problems in Afghanistan, Syria, or the Persian Gulf itself?

Obviously not.

Hawks at home and abroad are always harping about U.S. credibility and the need for presidents to show their strength. But refusing to talk to those with whom we differ isn’t a sign of confidence and strength; it’s actually a sign of timidity and weakness. It tells the world that we’re afraid that shaking hands, sitting down, and talking with someone might rock the foundations of our power. Are we really so worried? Having a conversation with an adversary doesn’t require us to agree with them; indeed, sometimes talking exposes just how sharp the differences are and reveals that compromise isn’t possible at that time. By itself, talking to another sovereign government gives away nothing, especially when it is just a normal part of one’s diplomatic practice.

If the report is correct that the US offered a meeting, that is a good sign that it may happen soon, when the time is ‘ripe’.

But I think the Iranians should have accepted the invitation to meet at the UN. But apparently the Iranian leader faces the same kinds of idiotic pressures back home about talking with an adversary that US leaders face.


  1. colnago80 says

    I wonder if Prof. Walt thought that a meeting with Frankenberger during the 1930s would have been productive. Chamberlain certainly didn’t find it very productive.

  2. Nathair says

    One comment in and we’ve got an (historically ridiculous) Godwin from someone who clearly missed the entire point. That bodes not well for the discussion.

  3. Nathair says

    The point was not that all such meetings will inevitably be productive.

    And the man’s name was not Frankenberger. Sophomoric nonsense, that.

  4. Alex says


    Who are you talking about? Surely you mean Rouhanizweig and Khamenstein, right? 😀
    And Nazi is of course secretly shorthand for Ashkenazi.

  5. Frank says

    Do you think it possible that a meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani could be productive? Certainly such a meeting might result in no progress in relations between the two countries, but I can’t imagine that it would result in negative progress. Do you disagree?

  6. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Walt compared this whole discussion to a “breathless ‘will they, won’t they” story, which is aptly reminiscent of the gossip dramas of the bizarrely narrow and cruel world of high school social competition. The whole debate is absurd. Obviously the first step to resolving any conflict is for the two sides to talk and understand each other’s concerns. You don’t have to childishly take everything said at face value, but without open channels of communication nothing can get done. What might have happened in 1962 if Kennedy and Kruschev had not managed to exchange messages? History is full of quotes from wise men about knowing one’s enemy, about keeping one’s enemy close, and about talking to one’s enemy.

    Walt didn’t mention one of the most prominent cases of such folly in recent history, and that is the Bush administration driving North Korea to build and test nuclear weapons because it abandoned previous agreements and took a hard line approach by saying we wouldn’t even stoop to talk to North Korea until after they had bent to satisfy a list of US demands and pre-conditions. Gee, all that macho bluster worked well, didn’t it?

    It is childish, idiotic, and incredibly arrogant to act as if deigning to talk to someone is conferring upon them some kind of great blessing. Of course it elevates the stature of a leader to meet with the President, but that is just the basic respect any President of the US ought to be willing to grant any head of state of any country in the world. It should just be part of the job.

    In the 2008 campaign and early in his first term President Obama took a lot of grief for saying he would talk to anyone. Over time he has had to temper that and adapt to the realities of political pressure, which goes to show at least that public opinion still has the power to constrain elected officials, even if a lot of public opinion in the US is incredibly stupid. I think it was that attitude on Obama’s part that won him so much good will internationally early on (yes, I know things have changed since then) and in contrast to Bush rhetoric and the reckless invasion of Iraq that had the whole world nervous about what a dangerous rogue nation the US had become, it was that change in attitude that led the Nobel committee, in a kind of nervous sigh of relief, to award the peace prize even though he had done nothing particular to earn it. It was simply important to the world to hear a change in tone from the world’s most dangerous and lethally armed country.

    Peter Beinart has a piece at the Daily Beast describing parallels of this moment with the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. You can be sure that a lot of the same right-wing hawks were there saying the same kind of stupid things. Thus one beautiful paragraph lays out some of the most delicious ironies:

    [T]he same “Reaganites” who will bash Obama for compromising with Rouhani once bashed Reagan for compromising with Gorbachev. As late as December 1987, Charles Krauthammer was writing that “the fundamental misconception about Gorbachev is that he has somehow broken the ideological mold.” Until virtually the day the Soviet empire collapsed, Rep. Dick Cheney was calling glasnost a fraud. In 1988 George Will accused Reagan of having “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West … by elevating wishful thinking [about Gorbachev] to the status of public policy.” When Reagan brought the intermediate missiles deal to Congress for ratification, a right-wing group called the Anti-Appeasement Alliance took out newspaper ads comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.

  7. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    But despite that setback, Stephen M. Walt makes the obvious point, that talking to foreign leaders whom one disagrees with should not be seen as so momentous.

    Whether or not any such meeting is momentous or not depends on whether any momentum comes from it or not.

    If they meet and acheive nothing and no progress is made, it doesn’t matter or become momentous.

    If OTOH they meet and something (good or bad) changes dramatically and a lot comes of it then it becomes momentous – in hindsight and /or at the time as well.


    Question becomes will / would Obama meeting Rouhani change things? Maybe it would. Maybe it won’t.

    Not sure Rouhani can be trusted – or Obama and there are, of course, many obstacles and pressure groups and arguments on all sides besetting both leaders.

    But *if* they meet then maybe as if they don’t meet and aren’t prepared to talk and make changes as a result of the talks then clearly there cannot be anything toomomentous -just yetanother missedopportunityand status quo dragging on.

    I hope they do meet and talk seriously, plainly and effectively. I hope something momentous can still happen.

    I hope it becomes a positive momentous change with Iran giving up its quest for nukes, turning its back on the Islamist revolution and Mullah’s medieval theocratic brutal rules and rejoining the modernised scientifically advanced and ethically decent world.

    Iran was once famously described as an “empire of the mind.” Under the Ayatollah’s I think it lost that metaphorical “mind” driven out along with the pro-Western, more good than the alternative, Shah Pavlavi and became instead the dark shadow of Middel Eastern Earth spreading and sponsoring terrorism, fear and hatreds.

    Can the Iranians now change direction? Will they now do so?

    I hope so.

    Yet it remains to be seen.

    There are many good Iranians and the alternative if Iran does not is far worse for everyone.

    I hope Rouhani turns out to be to Iran’s revolution what Gorbatchov was to the Russian one.

    But its still wa-aay too early to tell if that’s going to be the case or not.

  8. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Typo fix for clarity, sorry (wish we could edit comments here, grumble,sigh.) :

    But *if* they meet then maybe momemtum will be made. If they *don’t* meet and *aren’t* prepared to talk and make changes as a result of the talks then clearly there cannot be anything too momentous – just yet another missed opportunity with the status quo dragging on unmomentously.

  9. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    To gain momentum for good things future~wise actions will have to follow any such meetings and words – including :

    1) Clear signs that Iran really is giving up its quest for Atomic Bombs,

    2) Iran accepting Israel’s right to existence and ceasing all funding and support of all kinds for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban.

    3) Diminishing the power to the Ayatollah’s and Islamic religion and increased power to the Iranian people and democracy freeing them and allowing them a proper voice , proper freedom and more.

    Do we think Rouhani can or will deliver on these key things? I do not know, I hope so.

    If he can’t well, the consequences will suck for everyone world-wide incl. the Iranians themselves. In fact they’ve been sucking because of Iran’s refusal to take these steps ever since the Iranian revolution.

    Iran really needs a Gorbatchov figure – and a Kemal Attaturk one as well.

  10. colnago80 says

    Since Rouhani has no authority, he can’t deliver anything. Anymore then his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres.

  11. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Those who reflexively reject any conciliation whatsoever with suspicion and contempt make any peace impossible. They have already decided that only war can solve the problem, and their attitude would make war a certainty. That is, of course, if they had any more authority than Queen Elizabeth.

  12. Frank says

    It is not true that Mr Rouhani has no authority. It is true that he does not have ultimate authority, but his public actions and appearances do have an effect on the public perception of Iran in the US (thus changing the political realities of US policy toward Iran), and I would assume on the public perceptions of the US in Iran.

    Would you argue that the rhetoric of Mr Rouhani’s predecessor had no effect on US-Iran relations?

    Also, I wouldn’t think that a direct comparison of Mr Rouhani and Mr Peres is quite right. Mr Rouhani is Head of Government, while Mr Peres is Head of State. I understand that the Head of State is more powerful than the Head of Government in Iran, with the reverse being true in Israel. But the Israeli President is apolitical, while the Iranian President is directly elected by the public, and thus has a popular mandate.

  13. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I think the way this works for the Greater Israel territorial maximalists who apologize constantly for the indefensible occupation and settlement of the West Bank, and the blatant long term strategy of buying time to accomplish the de facto annexation of the same territory, is that you always have to keep distracting people by emphasizing the existential threat to Israel, lest somebody notice that Israel, as the local military and economic minor superpower of the Middle East, is extremely secure and not under any existential threat. So whenever Iranians or any other neighborhood bullies make angry remarks about Israel, that is completely credible and must be taken very very seriously, but when any Muslim talks of peace and compromise, it is not at all credible and not to be taken seriously. It’s a one way ratchet.

    If that fails, you start talking about the holocaust, as if that were the Palestinian’s fault, and make sure to point out that anyone who would dare criticize any action taken by the state of Israel could only do so because of, duh, anti-Semitism.

    Of course, anyone familiar with the history of the Ottoman Empire, WWI, the Balfour declaration, how Sykes-Picot played out, the over-promising of land by the British, the details of the British Mandate drafted at San Remo in 1922, the immigration by Zionist settlers, the actions of the Lehi and Irgun prior to the 1948 war, and the entire history of conflict since the creation of Israel, understands the conflict to be about land. Anyone who understands the history and views it without favoritism can see that the Zionist immigrant’s historic hopes and claims were richly rewarded by the 1947 UN partition, while at the same time Muslim natives’ historic rights and claims were largely disregarded by the same partition plan. It should be fairly plain that if the same events had unfolded, but with a nation of Norwegian, or Indian, or Argentinian refugees immigrating to British Palestine rather than Jewish Zionists, there would be very similar bitterness, resentments, and hostility from those who were displaced in the process. It is plain that the anger and hatred at work is not just anti-Semitism, it is about land and political control.

    I’m not saying anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. I’m saying it isn’t the major factor in this conflict, even though the right wingers addicted to lusting after sole Jewish possession of Judea and Samaria realize it is in their best interests to keep pushing the Jewish victim narrative. But past victimization of Jews, as real and awful and undeniable as it was, does not turn Israelis into the victims today. Israelis have all the power and control in this struggle, but the holocaust, while a strong factor in granting statehood to Israel in 1948, can not justify the Israeli takeover of the West Bank today.

  14. colnago80 says

    You don’t have to childishly take everything said at face value, but without open channels of communication nothing can get done. What might have happened in 1962 if Kennedy and Kruschev had not managed to exchange messages?

    Khrushchev didn’t believe in the coming of the 12th Imam. As he once stated, in the event of a nuclear exchange, the living would envy the dead.

  15. says

    If your argument is that crazed religious fanatics shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, I agree. But the crazed religious fanatics in Israel have managed to avoid triggering a suicidal/nihilistic war in spite of their bizzare tribal-supremacist beliefs. Of course, they have a few crazed lunatic fringies who talk about throwing around 15 megaton bombs, and committing slaughter, but rational people take that kind of nonsense with a grain of salt.

    You do understand that your arguments against Iran apply equally against Israel (though more so, since Israel has actually developed nuclear weapons and delivery systems) right? If the Iranians are crazed fucknuts who’d choose suicide, so are the Israelis, my little strutting fucknut fascist lapdog. If the Israelis are capable of showing restraint in spite of their genocidal lunatic fringe, so are the Iranians.

  16. says

    12th imam, yaweh-sent messiah that’s going to come put god’s people above all overs – what’s the difference? Here’s a hint: the Iranians probably believe that 12th imam bullshit about as much as the Israelis believe that messiah crap. You’re attempting a battle of who’s the biggest and most unstable fuckwit, and that’s not a battle you can win.

  17. says

    Since Rouhani has no authority, he can’t deliver anything

    Then you shouldn’t object at all if Obama kisses him on both cheeks, calls him “brother” and pledges unilateral US support forever, right?

  18. Mano Singham says

    Isn’t it interesting how the Israel lobby has suddenly ‘discovered’ that the president has no power? When Ahmedinajad was president, he was deemed the most powerful man in Iran.

  19. colnago80 says

    The Pennsylvania pinhead neglects to mention that the crazies in Israel are not in charge of the government, and in fact, have less influence then ever as the current government has excluded the religious parties. An no, Bibi is not crazy, just a garden variety liar.

  20. colnago80 says

    I think that the Pennsylvania pinhead is laboring under the notion that Jews, even the nutcase ones like Rabbi Oveida, believe that the messiah is going to return any day now. This is a Christian delusion held by the born agains that Yeshua ben Yusef of Nazareth is going to return any day now. The imminent arrival of the 12th Imam is a delusion held by born again Shiites like the Ayatollah Khamenei. What the born agains of both religious persuasions believe is that a world wide nuclear war would hasten the arrival of these fictional characters.

  21. colnago80 says

    Rouhani is head of government in name only. He has no more authority then the Queen of England or President Peres.

  22. colnago80 says

    And isn’t it interesting how the Singhams of the world who used to tell us that Ahmadinejad was a figurehead and had no authority and thus his fulminations should be ignored now claim that his successor, Rouhani is the man of the hour and has the authority that Ahmadinejad lacked. The worm seems to have turned in both directions.

  23. Mano Singham says

    Can you give an example of where I said that Ahmadinejad was a ‘figurehead’ who ‘had no authority’? Or where I said that Rouhani has more authority than Ahmadinejad?

  24. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends on some of the crazies. Without the crazies, Likud couldn’t govern. Avigdor Lieberman may not be out there spitting on little girls whose school uniform includes a skirt that exposes their knees, but he is one of the perhaps slightly lesser crazies.

    And the Likud Party’s founding ideology is premised on Revisionist Zionism, and their de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza are consistent with that philosophy.

    Let me be plain here: anyone who champions the idea that Israel must hold onto the West Bank and Gaza for security purposes is going against the grain of modern military principles. Israel, with its dominant economic and military power, would not be existentially threatened if it stopped projecting military power, control, and and territorial expansion into the West Bank.

    And anyone who defends these policies is defending a blatant injustice. There is no reasonable argument against this.

    And given the founding principles of Likud, the correspondence between the Revisionist Zionism goal of eastward manifest destiny for Israel and current practices of the Israeli government is undeniable.

    And on an unrelated point, I wish you two could stop the ad hominem attacks and stick to constructive discussion.

  25. Jeffrey Johnson says


    It is true that neither Ahmadinejad nor Rouhani have or had the authority to unilaterally initiate significant policies. They are obviously entrusted to set a tone in international dialog, and it is undeniable that Rouhani is setting a very different tone. To simply allow confirmation bias to dictate that Ahmadinejad must have been honest and Rouhani is not is not a reasonable approach to this. There is a great deal of plausibility behind the idea that economic pressures of the sanctions is shifting opinions and changing minds within Iran. So the difference may not be one of honesty and dishonesty. The different tone may represent real changes within Iran.

    It is reasonable to argue that caution is advisable in interpreting Rouhani’s change of tone. But it’s not reasonable to reflexively reject it without any examination, without testing it, without cautiously probing the meaning of it.

    And as in any government in any country of the world, including the US, most officials do not have the authority to unilateraly commit the state to any international agreements, but any government official can be delegated that authority by the head of state or council that does possess the authority.

    There is no way you can know that Rouhani has not been granted such delegated authority by Khamenei. Rouhani has publicly claimed that Khamenei has delegated such authority. Of course it can be rescinded at any time. So a prudent, circumspect, cautious approach to this is advisable. But rejecting it out of hand is not advisable, and could be an enormously costly mistake. It is best to wait and see what pans out, rather than uselessly trying to predict the outcome based on prejudice.

  26. colnago80 says

    Interestingly enough, the US Government also changed the Government of Israel in 1999. The Clintons sent their attack dog, the ragin Cajun James Carville over to Israel to help run Ehud Barak’s campaign for prime minister; at that time, the prime minister was elected separately {since, that legislation was rescinded). They also put out propaganda telling the electorate what a bum Netanyahu was and Clinton big donors paid for anti-Bibi adds on Israeli media.

  27. colnago80 says

    Re Jeffrey Johnson

    Lieberman is not a crazy and certainly not a religious nutcase. Unfortunately, like US Vice-President Biden, he is in the habit of sometimes running his mouth before his brain is engaged. As for the founding principles of the Likud Party, the founding principals of the Democratic Party included support for slavery. That’s just about as relevant as the ideas of Jabotinsky.

    Mr. Johnson seems to be laboring under the delusion that its the settlements on the West Bank that are standing in the way of an agreement. In this regard, he is remarkably ignorant for a grown man. What stands in the way of a settlement is the insistence of the Palestinian leadership that refugees in refugee camps be resettled in Israel. Until that demand is dropped, there is not the slightest chance of a settlement as no Israeli Government would agree to it.

  28. colnago80 says

    No because Rouhani is a figurehead. In fact, it might be counterproductive in that it would send a signal that the US is not serious about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

  29. Jeffrey Johnson says

    But Democrats aren’t still following policies that are consistent with the support of slavery. The Likud Party, regardless of what they may say publicly, are still physically pursuing policies entirely consistent with Revisionist Zionism philosophy. So your point is nothing but an empty diversion from the facts at hand.

    Regarding the right of return, I agree Israel should not have to allow them all to return. What is also true and not negotiable is that in 1948 when people tried to return, Isreal actively refused them, creating a vast refugee problem intentionally. Isreal clearly owes a large debt in this regard.

    The only way the right of return issue can be solved is if Israel offers generous compensation to every one of the refugees, and there is no reason in the world Israel should refuse to do that.

  30. Jeffrey Johnson says

    It might send such a signal to whom?

    And if sending signals is so important, what actions do you think should be taken to send the right signals, and what are the right signals to send? Hasn’t the concerted effort to severely punish Iran economically sent any of the right signals?

    If even talking to Iran sends somebody the wrong signals, then that leaves only war and nothing else as an alternative because no compromise could ever be reached without holding talks.

    Maybe the party receiveing and interpreting the so-called signals that the US lacks seriousness are the problem here.

  31. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @6.1 Mano Singham :

    Well, if Iran agrees to behave reasonably then the US should drop its sanctions and normalise diplomatic relations with Iran.

    This seems reasonable and fair doesn’t it?

  32. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Also ask yourself what did the USA change when the Berlin Fall fell and the Cold war ended in the Wests favour?

    That’s the sort of positive change I’m talking about here. The Iranian revolution under Ayatollah Khomenei was as much a horrible negative historical dead end as Soviet Communism was in my view. In each case, you have a repressive seriously nasty ideology (Leninism-Stalinism & extremist Islamism) ruining lives and nations and creating immense human suffering versus an admittedly imperfect but much freer and more workable and prosperous (& popular – litmus test where are people fleeing from and to?)) capitalist Western democratic system of governance.

  33. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I hope I’m wrong about this but I get the horrible feeling that the Ayatollah’s may be playing a very old routine with us here using Rouhani as the “good cop” to “I’m-a-dinner-jackets” bad cop. Perhaps?

    But maybe Rouhani can evolve into something more than those behind the scenes possibly pulling his strings predict – I hope. Iranian politics is awfully murky and hard to parse and I happily admit there’s plenty we just don’t know and early days still.

  34. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    The “Israel lobby” scapegoat again? Is that a strawman or a single monolithic entity in your opinion Mano Singham?

    Seems to me the Ayatollahs’ are ultra-conservative and supported Ahmadinejad a lot more than they’d do Rouhani because Ahmadinejad (A.) was more their type. They mercilessly crushed a people’s uprising for A. Do you really think they’d so so for Rouhani or back him as fully?

    Also *if* they do back Rouhani as fully then is he really a guy we want to be talking to as opposed to someone who is acting against the Ayatollah’s to change Iran into a better, freer, happier, less Islamist and dreadful place?

  35. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Queen Eliazabeth the first or second? Both have been rather impressive monarchs as monarchs go actually.

    I don’t reject any conciliation with suspicion and /or contempt. I do however think we might be y’know a bit wary given Iran’s past record of deceit and we may be better off playing it tough rather than just rolling over instantly to anything they offer, don’t ythink?

    I also don’t think only war can solve the problem but I do think that *if* the other side has already made up its mind that this the case then it’s probably better not to let them get away with determining the timing of the war they have thus made inevitable through their own misjudgement wouldn’t you agree?

  36. Jeffrey Johnson says

    The second, of course. I was referring to colnago’s post, and to one made earlier under #2, and a few others that suggest absolute skepticism about any diplomacy.

    I agree with what you say, which should be clear if you read my post at #3. We don’t just accept everything at face value. The people involved are professionals. They know the need for caution, for building trust, for establishing evidence of good will that can be verified, etc. everyone understands the dangers. It’s so obvious that both sides proceed with caution and demand mutual guarantees that it hardly needs saying.

    The only ones who think war is the only way are the extremists on both sides, which includes the Israeli right wing and their hard core supporters. But they need not win out. Lest the inevitable anti-Semitism smears be cast upon me, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not applying this remark to all Israelis or Jews, just the minority of the most fanatical right wing. In their defense, I’ll say I’m sure it’s hard to think clearly if you see holocaust II everywhere you look. But that way lies madness and paranoia, which I see too much of on the Internet.

  37. Jeffrey Johnson says

    There is an Arab Spring. Why not a Berlin Fall? It’s a nice coinage. Instead of saying “when the Berlin Wall fell”, one can simply talk about the Berlin Fall. It really happened in the Autumn, too.

  38. says

    When I saw this post in the “most active” list, I immediately guessed it would be our longtime Likudnik chickenhawk, frantically trynig to shout down any idea of anyone talking to anyone Israel didn’t like. I think that’s what’s most frightening about the prospect of Obama talking to an Iranian leader: the more amiably they chatter, the more unhinged and blatantly batshit crazy (and less credible) Israel and its cheerleaders become. At the rate Bibi and his lobbyists are going, it’ll only be one more week before NOBODY takes Israel or AIPAC seriously anymore.

    You’d think a small nation like Israel would prefer to make the region a calmer place any chance they got, rather than have two or more much bigger nations waving nukes at each other over their heads. (Not sure about prevailing winds in that region, but is Israel sure they’d never be downwind from any city that gets nuked in a regional war?)

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