Skip to main content

Obama and Rouhani: 'Jaw jaw' better than 'war war'

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 PM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Call with Iran's Rouhani historic, significant, and courageous for Obama
  • He says fears that Iran has pursued nuclear weapons have led to crippling sanctions
  • He says in 2009 Obama said he wanted engagement with Iran, then appeared to lean away
  • Rothkopf: Churchill said "jaw-jaw" better than "war-war." Obama seems ready to risk it

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- There are 34 years of reasons to be skeptical about any negotiations that may emerge from Friday's historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. There are scores of broken promises and outright lies about Iran's nuclear program itself. There is Iran's state sponsorship of terror and its efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East at the expense of peace, human dignity and America's allies.

But there are no reasons not to be appreciative of the significance of the call, the courage it took for President Obama to seek it, or the good common sense that is to be associated with the United States talking to its enemies.

Earlier this week, a flurry of speculation surrounded a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the edges of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. During a session with U.S. media that I attended, Rouhani said a handshake between the two leaders did not take place because the Iranians did not want the gesture without a plan for following up on it.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

He said the White House had proposed the meeting but Iran declined simply because there was not enough time to prepare such a plan, and added that he welcomed better communication with the United States. Frankly, I was skeptical.

But then, after two days of exchanges, the two countries hammered out a preliminary plan. With that in place, the historic exchange, the first by leaders of the two countries since 1979, took place. Both agreed to instruct representatives to begin negotiations toward an agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program. The United States seeks to ensure the program does not lead to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Iran, according to Rouhani, seeks to have the ability to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear power and nothing more.

There have been negotiations in other forums in the past. Officials here and abroad have long asserted that Iran has been trying to move closer to the capability to develop nuclear weapons, despite years of passionate denials by its leaders. President Obama has said he would use whatever means necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

America's closest ally in the region, Israel, has declared Iran's pursuit of such weapons an existential threat. Iran's neighbors in the Gulf have watched its programs warily and offered telling indications that a nuclear Iran would trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

Iranians pleased at phone call from U.S.
Rice on Obama-Rouhani phone call
Exclusive: Mit Romney on Iran, Rouhani

President Obama came into office citing this as a top national security concern. Even as other U.S. policy initiatives in the region have met with mixed success, he and his team stepped up a sanctions program that squeezed the Iranian economy hard, contributing to a national economic crisis in that country. It was one of the things President Rouhani was elected to help fix. (Of course, the choice of who could run in that election and what he could then do once in office was ultimately determined by that country's ruling clerics, most notably, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)

Whether there was a benefit to be had from direct contact between Iran's president and America's was raised as early as the 2008 presidential campaign. Strong voices in both U.S. political parties counseled against such exchanges. Obama argued as president-elect that there was merit to more rather than less interaction, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos in January 2009, "We are going to have to take a new approach (regarding Iran). And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start."

Since then, having overseen America's withdrawal from Iraq, having set a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and having appeared hesitant to aggressively engage in crises from Egypt to Syria, Obama has found himself using "engagement" in a different, more defensive sense.

Critics, including myself, have argued he appears to be leaning away from the region and its myriad, complex problems. This week at the United Nations he said, "The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage. I believe that would be a mistake."

Now, it seems, at a time when the president has seen his foreign policy approval numbers hit new lows, he has reverted to his old idea of actively speaking to our enemies as the best way to prove he is not turning away from the region. He has collaborated with circumstances to choose this option in Syria--and Iran.

It is risky. Both situations defy easy solution. The Iranians have changed their tone but must go a long way to prove they are changing their intent, embracing transparency and adhering to international standards. Even if they do, if they continue to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah they will be at loggerheads with the United States.

But as Winston Churchill said, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war." If talks come with the skepticism they deserve--and a tough timeline that doesn't let Iran use them as a stalling tactic to further develop weapons programs--they are a risk well worth taking. And they may just demonstrate that the best adviser of the new Obama is the old Obama.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT