The Iran policies of Obama and Carter

To counter the Iranian threat, it may be helpful to compare Carter's approach to that of Obama.

jimmy carter beirut 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jimmy carter beirut 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Throughout history, rogue states have attempted to dislodge the existing international order and change the status quo. The term "rogue" refers to any state that pursues weapons of mass destruction, uses international terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and espouses a foreign policy outlook that threatens US allies or important American interests in key regions. Today, Iran insists on maintaining its status as a rogue state by complying with these three main criteria.
To counter the Iranian threat, the US will need a tough foreign policy, and it may be helpful to understand the approach of the Carter administration of 1979-81 as compared to President Barack Obama's approach.
THE FOUR main philosophies that dominate US foreign policy are the Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian schools of thought, named after the prominent American leaders who personified them. Wilsonians advocate the spread of democracy, social values and capitalism, based on principles of democratic government and the protection of human rights. Hamiltonians place emphasis on a strong alliance between the national government and large industry as key to domestic stability and thriving international trade. Jeffersonians advocate economic embargoes over military action to decrease the risk of war. They prefer that American foreign policy focus on preserving democracy at home rather than spreading democracy around the world. Jacksonians believe the most important goal of US foreign policy is the physical security and economic welfare of the American people, and will go to great lengths to protect that.
Jimmy Carter brought two main foreign-policy objectives with him to the White House in 1979. The first was to resolve a number of outstanding issues such as a Middle Eastern settlement and strategic arms limitation. The second was an idealistic, Wilsonian approach that valued peace and human rights. Carter introduced an original foreign-policy philosophy identified as New Internationalism, promoting a new world order that emphasized international stability, peace and justice. He sought to infuse Iran with respect for human rights, but his administration was challenged with a tumultuous political and ideological transformation in Teheran, and the subsequent capture of US hostages there.
Although Carter promoted human rights as a major objective in his foreign policy, he overlooked human rights abuses committed by a number of countries, including Iran. His ambiguous approach and generosity toward the shah, a human rights abuser, eventually came back to hurt him politically. Jacksonian impatience with Carter's Jeffersonian policies ultimately forced him out of office, heralding in the Jacksonian Reagan era.
OBAMA HAS expressed his wish to see Iran become a democratic nation while backing down on its alleged nuclear weapons program. The guiding Jeffersonian-Wilsonian principle of the Obama administration's foreign policy is one he believes may ensure the safety of the American people. Although Obama has not taken the military option out of the equation, his foreign-policy approach to Iran is obvious.
Even when provoked, Jeffersonians will still try to avoid war and instead prefer economic sanctions, since this does not tie the US up in war debts and military coalitions. Wilsonians also despise war, but avoid it for humanitarian reasons. Obama has embraced both of these approaches. His administration is more interested in first attempting other methods, such as negotiation, arbitration and sanctions, all in graduated steps.
But at the start of a new White House administration, it is difficult to determine what the president's foreign-policy approach will look like. Often, the foreign policy of the first few months in no way resembles the policy of the same administration just two years later. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the US out of war, and in 1940 Franklin Roosevelt pledged to do the same. Richard Nixon was a firm anti-communist, but he then engaged in relations with China and moved toward détente with the USSR. George W. Bush's foreign policy was first considered isolationist, but this all changed after 9/11. None of them had anticipated the events that changed their reality and ultimately shaped their presidency.
TODAY, IRAN'S leaders may be employing religious motives and providing Obama with plenty to anticipate. Iran has the largest single group of Shi'ites in the world. The largest community among Shi'ite believers is the Ithna'Ashara or "Twelver." They believe in the 12 imams, successors of Muhammad, of whom three are important: Ali, son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad; Hussein, the second son of Ali who died in martyrdom; and the 12th imam, the "mahdi," who is in hiding and is expected to eventually return and rule Muslims everywhere.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is said to belong to a group called the Hojjatieh Society, which longs for the return of this 12th imam. Ahmadinejad has specifically proclaimed that the mission of an Islamic Iran is to prepare for the return of the mahdi. One way he believes this can be accomplished is through Armageddon, and some believe he would do this even though it may mean mutually assured destruction in a retaliatory second strike.
Some experts believe Iran is an irrational actor, undeterred by normal military cost-benefit calculations and might, for this very reason, use nuclear weapons in a first strike against the US, Israel or other US allies. Others believe that a nuclear Iran would simply change the distribution of power in the Middle East, which would allow it to exercise more assertiveness and force the US and Israel to act more cautiously.
AT THE time, Carter feared the destabilization of the Persian Gulf region, but then mobilized anti-communist Islamic groups against Soviet expansionism. Islamic fundamentalism thereby took a secondary role to the Soviet threat. The failure of the Carter administration to observe the Iranian street and grasp the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism should stand as a stark warning to the Obama administration not to repeat the same mistakes.
To target Iran's leaders and avoid collective punishment, the US should consider an "incentives" policy rather than a "sanctions" policy. This could achieve the desired results in a manner deemed by Iranians more dignified, and by the US more attainable. Obama will need to anticipate all scenarios and ensure that the National Intelligence Estimate is accurate, displaying full awareness of Iran's intentions concerning its nuclear weapons program.
No single foreign-policy approach is perfect, and the Obama administration will need to combine the four foreign-policy schools of thought to achieve a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with Iran, and ultimately a safer world.
The writer is a freelance political adviser who has worked with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.