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

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

Iranians holding anti-U.S., anti-Israel and anti-Saudi placards in
Tehran in April. Associated Press
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 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 of Public Affairs at the
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 for more than 500
days; Iran’s record remains among the worst in the world.

The track record for highly ideological states changing quickly or
easily is poor. , , 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

Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for
Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why
America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on
Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.

Source: In Cuba and Iran, Change Is Slower Than Obama Would Like –
Washington Wire – WSJ –

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