Obama’s pas­siv­ity on Ja­son Reza­ian

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANA MIL­BANK Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

The con­se­quences of Pres­i­dent Obama’s pas­sive for­eign pol­icy came close to home last week. My Post col­league Ja­son Reza­ian, the pa­per’s Tehran bureau chief, has been lan­guish­ing in an Ira­nian jail for 15 months on bo­gus charges of es­pi­onage. He was put on se­cret trial by a kan­ga­roo court. Last Sun­day, Ira­nian state TV re­ported that he had been con­victed.

And Obama said ... noth­ing. He didn’t go to the brief­ing room and make a state­ment. He didn’t even re­lease a writ­ten state­ment. On Tues­day, his press sec­re­tary, in re­sponse to a reporter’s ques­tion at the brief­ing, re­sponded with what might have been de­scribed as mi­nor an­noy­ance with the Ira­nian regime.

“We’ve got a num­ber of con­cerns,” the spokesman said, men­tion­ing the “un­just” de­ten­tion and “opaque” process.

Where was the de­mand that Iran im­me­di­ately re­lease Reza­ian and the two or three other Amer­i­cans it is ef­fec­tively hold­ing hostage? Where was the threat of con­se­quences if Tehran re­fused? How about some right­eous out­rage con­demn­ing Iran for lock­ing up an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist for do­ing his job? Even if Obama’s out­rage came to noth­ing, it would be salu­tary to hear the pres­i­dent de­fend the core Amer­i­can value of free speech.

Of­fi­cials who de­fend Obama’s de­tached ap­proach say this is an ex­am­ple of his pa­tient diplo­macy, his be­lief in play­ing the long game. If the pres­i­dent were to speak out pas­sion­ately about Reza­ian, they ar­gue, Obama would only make Reza­ian more valu­able to the Ira­ni­ans as a bar­gain­ing chit. That’s why a de­mand for his (and the oth­ers’) re­lease wasn’t a con­di­tion of the nu­clear deal.

But at some point pa­tience be­comes pas­siv­ity; Obama’s game is so long that it of­ten ap­pears he isn’t play­ing at all. In my col­league’s case, it’s baf­fling that the ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t use the con­sid­er­able lever­age it has. With sanc­tions eas­ing be­cause of the nu­clear deal, Iran is hun­gry for U.S. in­vest­ment. Would it re­ally hurt the pres­i­dent to warn — ac­cu­rately — that U.S. busi­nesses will be re­luc­tant to set up shop in a coun­try that kid­naps and locks up Amer­i­cans for no rea­son? Per­haps the Euro­peans, ea­ger to in­vest in Iran, could use a re­minder of this, too; Bri­tish and Cana­dian na­tion­als have been treated sim­i­larly.

That’s the view of Ali Reza­ian, Ja­son’s brother, who is frus­trated with the pub­lic qui­es­cence. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to make it clear that busi­nesses aren’t go­ing to be able to en­gage in a state that treats for­eign­ers like this and treats in­no­cents like this,” he told me. If a jour­nal­ist is called a spy for do­ing his job, imag­ine how the Ira­ni­ans will treat Amer­i­cans work­ing for, say, de­fense con­trac­tors such as Boe­ing or Gen­eral Elec­tric.

Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry, to his credit, is do­ing much be­hind the scenes to try to se­cure Reza­ian’s re­lease. Of­fi­cials fig­ure the (rel­a­tively) mod­er­ate Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani and For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif will be in a stronger po­si­tion to push the ay­a­tol­lahs to re­lease the Amer­i­cans af­ter the lift­ing of sanc­tions boosts the Ira­nian econ­omy. The goal is some sort of pris­oner swap in which Reza­ian, and per­haps the other Amer­i­cans, are freed in ex­change for the re­lease of those held in the United States for vi­o­lat­ing sanc­tions against Iran.

But the pub­lic pos­ture of the White House is baf­fling, even to some in the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Those in­side and out­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion I’ve talked with say the de­tach­ment fol­lows a fa­mil­iar pat­tern. On is­sue af­ter is­sue, na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Su­san Rice and White House Chief of Staff De­nis McDonough, chan­nel­ing Obama’s own skit­tish­ness, have re­sisted more en­gage­ment when ad­vo­cated by the likes of Kerry or U.N. Am­bas­sador Sa­man­tha Power.

Obama, afraid of own­ing a for­eign pol­icy fi­asco the way Ge­orge W. Bush owned the Iraq war, has in­stead erred on the side of do­ing and say­ing lit­tle about prob­lems. His few at­tempts at de­ci­sive pol­icy — the “red line” in Syria, for ex­am­ple — have ended badly. And so Obama dis­en­gages. He has been re­luc­tant to take on Rus­sian ag­gres­sion in Ukraine or China’s ex­pan­sion­ism, and he has been mad­den­ingly vague about Syria. The si­lence, and the re­sult­ing am­bi­gu­ity about the Amer­i­can po­si­tion, only cre­ate more chaos — and in­crease the need for the very in­ter­ven­tion Obama dreads.

This sum­mer, Obama was fu­ri­ous when Ma­jor Gar­rett of CBS News asked him why he was “con­tent, with all of the fan­fare around this [nu­clear] deal, to leave the con­science of this na­tion, the strength of this na­tion, un­ac­counted for, in re­la­tion to [the] Amer­i­cans” de­tained by Iran.

Obama lec­tured Gar­rett: “That’s non­sense, and you should know bet­ter.”

If only Obama were will­ing to speak so force­fully and pas­sion­ately to the Ira­nian regime, Ja­son Reza­ian might be a free man.

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