Cliff May

Diplomacy is not a science but sometimes diplomatic theories can be tested. As a presidential candidate, Barrack Obama hypothesized that relations with both Iran and Russia could be much improved. The key was offering respect and demonstrating a commitment to engagement and compromise.

So on January 28, 2009, Obama gave his first sit-down interview as President of the United States to Al Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite network. He said he thought it important “to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. …[I]f countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

A few days later, on February 7, Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy on behalf of “an administration that's determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America's relations around the world.” He repeated Obama’s offer to Iran, proposing, even more ambitiously, that the U.S. and Iran undertake “a shared struggle against extremism.”

Biden then reached out in another direction, saying it was “time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” The following month, in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button on which the Russian word for reset was written. Or so she thought: The correct term would have been perezagruzka. Instead, the word used was peregruzka – which means “overload” or “overcharged.” The Russian daily newspaper Kommersant ran on its front page a picture of the button and the caption: "Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button."

The results since then: continuing manipulation, intimidation and censorship of the Russian press; continuing bullying of and aggression against former Soviet states; support for Iran’s nuclear weapons program; multiple murders in Chechnya (not a cause of significant outrage in the Muslim world); cronyism, corruption and the oppression of dissidents and political opponents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-prominent industrialist who dared challenge the political order. Tuesday marked the 8th anniversary of his incarceration.

And this month, Russia, along with China, vetoed what Ambassador Susan Rice called a “vastly watered down” Security Council resolution criticizing the “violence, torture, and persecution” being inflicted on peaceful protestors by the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s most important Arab client.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.