Skip to main content

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

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
September 27, 2013 -- Updated 2356 GMT (0756 HKT)
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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
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.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
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
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
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
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
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.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
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
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
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
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
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.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
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.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
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.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
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