Is Barack Obama trying to shift alliances in the Middle East away from traditional allies and toward Iran? Robert Kaplan, author and geopolitical analyst for the Stratford consulting firm, thinks so.
In a realclearworld.com article, Kaplan argues that the Obama administration sees the recently elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani "as a potential Deng Xiaoping, someone from within the ideological solidarity system who can, measure-by-stealthy-measure, lead his country away from ideology and toward internal reform."
Such a development, he goes on, is "something that could, in turn, result in an understanding with the West."
That of course is not what the president and Secretary of State John Kerry say they're up to. They say they're trying to get Iran to agree to stop its nuclear weapons development. No talk of a new alliance.
But Kaplan's view provides a more convincing explanation of what they've actually been doing. It helps explain why Obama and Kerry remain equable in the face of Iranian officials' public statements that they have not given up their nuclear program.
It also helps explain their adamant opposition to the sanctions bill supported by 59 senators and a large majority in the House. That bill would apply enhanced sanctions if and only if the administration did not achieve its stated goals at the end of the six-month negotiating period agreed to in November and that took effect, after resolution of "technical" issues, in January.
Obama spokesmen say the sanctions legislation might torpedo the negotiations and even lead to war. The Iranians, brought to the table by sanctions, will walk out if more sanctions are threatened.
That makes little sense. Particularly because in his State of the Union message Obama said that he would be the first to insist on more sanctions if negotiations failed. Why oppose legislation that would make his own threat more credible?
It would make sense, however, if Obama is trying to construct, in Kaplan's words, "a concert of powers that would include America, Iran, Russia and Europe," all opposed to Sunni al-Qaida terrorists.
Kaplan compares Obama and Kerry on Iran with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on China, attempting to reconcile with a long-shunned adversary based on shared common interests.
But there are significant differences between Nixon and Kissinger's opening to China and what Kaplan says Obama and Kerry are doing today.
The first is that Nixon and Kissinger waited until they had strong concrete evidence that China's leaders had interests consistent with America's.
As a candidate, Nixon wrote a 1967 Foreign Affairs article saying "we cannot simply afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations." But he called that a long-run goal, dependent on China "accepting the basic rules of international civility."
In office, Nixon and Kissinger listened to Chinese officials' denunciations of the Soviets and Soviet diplomats' alarm over China. But only after they observed a Soviet arms buildup and armed clashes on the China-Soviet border did they actively pursue communications with China through intermediaries.
Iran's mullah regime has been sponsoring armed attacks on Americans for 35 years. Its assaults on al-Qaida-type terrorists have been limited, so far as the record shows, to a bit of help in Afghanistan a decade ago.
The second difference between Iran now and China then is that Obama and Kerry, in Kaplan's account, place much stock in Rouhani as a change agent who will modify the character of a regime hostile to the U.S. for 35 years.
Previous administrations have seen earlier Iranian presidents as change agents too. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his book "Duty" notes that every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to reach out to Iranian leaders "and every one of them has failed to elicit any meaningful response."
The reason is that the firmly anti-American supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, hold the real power, not the occasional smiling front-man president.
Nixon and Kissinger did not rely on some internal reformer to turn China around. Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms started four years after Nixon resigned, and his name does not appear in Kissinger's memoir "The White House Years."
The Nixon-Kissinger opening did not rely on regime change -- Kissinger's account portrays them as puzzled by internal Chinese politics -- but on a demonstrated common interest in cabining in the Soviet Union.
Do Obama and Kerry really believe that we share such a common interest with the mullahs' Iran?