Obama's Cuba and Iran Deals Provide Regime Continuity

Saturday, December 19, 2015
By Aaaron David Miller in The Wall Street Journal:

In Cuba and Iran, Change Is Slower Than Obama Would Like

Heading into 2016, it looks like there’s going to be far more continuity in how Iran and Cuba deal with the U.S., and vice versa, than some might have hoped after President Barack Obama’s outreach to their authoritarian regimes.

The changes with Iran and Cuba are at best transactions, not transformation. Relations between the U.S., Iran, and Cuba had reached rock bottom after years of inertia, suspicion, mistrust, and conflicting interests. What’s been set into motion in each case is an incremental and gradual process that tests the possibility of big time changes over time. When Mr. Obama told Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that she needed to give the process time to work, he was making a virtue out of a necessity. President Obama will be long gone from the White House by the time there is empirical evidence that the payoff on Cuba–concrete and sustainable benefits for the Cuban people or changes in how the island is governed–has come to fruition. A Republican presidential win in 2016 would further constrain and delay prospects for dramatic change.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the Obama administration believed that the opening to Iran and Cuba would directly affect and influence the behavior of hard-line elites who have benefited from the closed system they created; or that people-to-people interaction–the “bottom-up approach”–might pay early or meaningful dividends. “It was just pure fantasy to think … that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system,” Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, recently told the New York Times. It’s an open question whether, as the administration hopes, it is possible to open up more space for Cubans by promoting greater commercial activity. There is a danger that the administration’s goal of using the new opening to raise public expectations in Cuba could backfire as change comes too slowly and there is little means to pressure a repressive system to accelerate it.

Whatever hope there was that somehow the nuclear accord with Iran would create an opening for U.S. relations with Iran has been exposed for the fallacy it has always been. Mr. Obama got what he wanted out of the deal: a slower, smaller, more easily monitored Iran nuclear program for a limited time. But the Iranians got more: In exchange for a nuclear weapon they don’t possess–one that U.S. intelligence suggests they haven’t yet made a decision to develop–they are getting out from under many international sanctions, with billions to help their leaders co-opt public dissent, fuel their regional ambitions, and still maintain a large enough nuclear infrastructure should they want to weaponize in 10 to 15 years. When it comes to change, the nuclear agreement has accelerated hard-liners’ determination to avoid any process that allows the deal to facilitate improved U.S.-Iranian ties. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian has been sitting in Evin prison for more than 500 days; Iran’s human rights record remains among the worst in the world.

The track record for highly ideological states changing quickly or easily is poor. China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet Union are examples of states where tight control can be maintained even while economic openness and greater contact with the outside world can be promoted and outreach calibrated to co-opt public dissatisfaction and still satisfy the leaders and elites who benefit from highly centralized control. Cuba and Iran are not the same, and each process the Obama administration has set into motion will play out differently. But chances are that we’re not in for a virtuous or quick cycle that’s going to transform relations with the U.S. or the political system in either country. More likely is that politics in the U.S., Tehran, and Havana are going to create a painstakingly tortuous cycle of fits and starts that will continue to expose Mr. Obama to charges that in each case he gave a lot more than he got.