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It's time for Biden to channel Trump, Reagan and meet Iran's Rouhani

It's time for Biden to channel Trump, Reagan and meet Iran's Rouhani
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As president, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE repeatedly sought to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The two leaders ultimately came remarkably close to speaking in late 2019.

Thirty-three years earlier, President Reagan dispatched his aides to meet with a group of moderate Iranian officials. Rouhani, then a 37-year-old senior foreign policy adviser, led the Iranian delegation.

Today, as diplomatic grandstanding grinds negotiations over the Iran nuclear agreement to a halt, it is high time for President Biden to take a page from the Reagan-Trump playbook and reach out to Rouhani.

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Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy establishment – the sprawling web of stuffy think tank “experts” and op-ed writers affectionately known as “the Blob” – will inevitably hem and haw in protest. Indeed, while perennially eager to start wars, the Blob is allergic to bold, forward-thinking diplomatic initiatives. 

Washington, it seems, has largely forgotten the first part of Teddy’s Roosevelt’s sage advice to “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” 

The Blob’s naysaying aside, a Biden-Rouhani meeting is the best path to easing simmering tensions in the Middle East. A reduction in regional hostilities is also the only way to begin a dialogue over Iran’s missile program and support for militant groups, core elements of Tehran’s defense and deterrence strategy that enjoy broad support from the Iranian public.

But with Iran’s 81-year-old supreme leader reportedly in ill health and Iranian presidential elections set for June, a Biden-Rouhani meeting needs to happen fast – very fast – if the White House has any interest in charting a bold new course towards peace in the Middle East.

For one, a meeting between the two leaders would undermine Iran’s conservatives. Like congressional Republicans, Iran’s hardliners oppose diplomatic engagement with the other side. 

Moreover, should Iran’s elderly supreme leader become seriously ill in the coming year, a series of Biden-Rouhani engagements might allow the United States to exert subtle influence on the complex process of picking his successor.

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Reagan, who found himself in an identical situation in the mid-1980s, understood this dynamic well. As he noted in his autobiography, Reagan “spent a great deal of time thinking about possible scenarios for Iran’s future once [Iran’s first Supreme Leader] Khomeini was gone.” With Khomeini in declining health, Reagan viewed direct engagement with Rouhani as “a bona fide opportunity to shape the future in the Middle East.”

Biden would be wise to follow Reagan’s example. Only this time, Rouhani has far more clout than in 1986, when he risked his life and political future to meet secretly with Reagan’s team.

Beyond this rare opportunity to sway the long-term trajectory of U.S.-Iran relations in a positive direction, a Biden-Rouhani meeting can shape Iranian presidential politics. Indeed, Iranian hardliners fear this very prospect.

Thanks to Trump’s failed policy of confrontation, Iran’s anti-American conservatives are favored to succeed Rouhani’s moderate government in June. But in the wake of demonstrations against Iran’s conservative leadership, a Biden-Rouhani-induced easing of tensions would place pressure on Iran’s electoral authorities to allow more moderate candidates to run for the presidency.

While the comparison is imperfect, Reagan’s diplomatic engagement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is instructive here. Gorbachev, like Rouhani, was a reform-minded, outward-looking moderate. Over the course of three years and five summit meetings, Reagan and Gorbachev developed a deeply personal friendship, bonding over their mutual desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Ultimately, Reagan’s embrace of Gorbachev undermined the most anti-American hardliners in Moscow. This gave Gorbachev the political latitude to enact the liberalizing reforms that ushered in a peaceful end to the Cold War. 

In Iran, Biden has an extraordinary opportunity to emulate the Reagan-Gorbachev dynamic. Indeed, with a healthy dose of diplomatic fortitude, Biden can help defang Iran’s conservatives, allowing Rouhani to continue his ambitious program of social and economic reforms.

To be sure, many Iran hawks embrace a radically different take on Reagan’s legacy. But the neoconservatives who invoke Reagan to justify an aggressive approach to Iran misread history.

Far from ushering in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the confrontational approach that defined Reagan’s first years in office prolonged the Cold War by boosting the communist hardliners steadfastly opposed to internal reform.

Moreover, contrary to the claims of many contemporary conservatives, Reagan did not simply spend the Soviets into ruin. As we now know, Gorbachev was adamantly opposed to Soviet hardliners’ relentless efforts to increase defense spending to match Reagan’s massive arms buildup. At the same time, the Soviets found that they could easily overcome Reagan’s colossally expensive missile defense pipe dream with cheap countermeasures

Nor did Reagan's exorbitant defense spending scare the Soviet leadership into selecting a radical reformer to lead the Soviet Union. Indeed, contrary to conservative mythmaking, Gorbachev’s radical agenda of reform was largely unknown to the Politburo when he was selected to lead the USSR. Moreover, the roots of Gorbachev’s “reformist spirit” pre-dated Reagan’s presidency by decades.

Ultimately, these historical realities undercut conservative arguments that the antagonism of Reagan’s first term ushered in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The same goes for countless photos and hours of video memorializing Reagan’s deeply personal diplomatic engagement with Gorbachev.

Importantly, Reagan outlined his remarkable reversal – from confrontation to diplomatic engagement – in his diary, writing: “If we opened [the Soviets] up a bit, their leading citizens would get braver about proposing changes in their system. I’m going to pursue this.”

Standing next to Gorbachev during a 1988 visit to Moscow, Reagan went on to recant his description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” dismissing his confrontational rhetoric of five years earlier as a relic of “another time, another era.” Not long thereafter, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. 

Time is running out for Biden and Rouhani to forge a similar path towards lasting peace. 

The two leaders can begin by echoing Reagan’s quip that “the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.