Obama in Cuba: Lessons for the Middle East

Washington is the last newcomer to Cuba as European and Latin American countries started opening up to the island following the collapse of the Soviet Union

Joyce Karam

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Old animosities don’t hold and strategic political and economic interests ultimately get the last word. That’s the message, resonating loud and clear, as Air Force One touched down for the first time since 1928 in Havana this week, granting US President Barack Obama his biggest foreign policy moment, and effectively turning the page on the adversarial era between Washington and what is left of Castro’s revolution.

In Cuba, Obama’s message travels well beyond Havana’s magnificent coastline, the Malecon, reasserting to friends and foes alike new benchmarks in US policy which will likely outlast the current administration. In the Middle East particularly, these benchmarks overlook slogans of past revolutions, and prioritize mutual interest as well as regional integration over domestic differences or old threats.

Between Havana & Tehran

Other than Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the images of Obama in Havana are projecting futuristic parallels with Iran, another country whose revolution in 1979 has put it in the circle of adversaries or sometimes the “axis of evil” for Washington and where diplomatic engagement has brokered the nuclear deal but not normalization. Can Obama’s aura of reconciliation take him to Tehran after Havana? Is Iran’s Supreme leader or its IRGC ready for a Castro-like transition?

The short answer to these questions is not yet. Cuba is not Iran, and while the end goal of US diplomacy is normalizing relations with both, the Castro model crumbles when contrasted regionally and internally with Tehran, making a repeat of a Havana scenario very unlikely in the near future.

What Cuba offers, however, is an important lesson for policymakers in Iran that there is a path to international legitimacy and economic prosperity that does not go through regional instability and anti-American theatrics and slogans. In such context, the rehabilitation of the Castro regime politically and economically within the inter Latin-American system, was a critical prelude to the US pivot two decades later.

What Cuba offers is an important lesson for policymakers in Iran that there is a path to international legitimacy and economic prosperity that does not go through regional instability and anti-American theatrics and slogans

Joyce Karam

Washington is the last newcomer to Cuba, as European and Latin American countries started opening up to the island following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dire economic crisis that hit the Castro regime in the 1990s. Unlike Iran, “communist Cuba” slowly started to tone down its anti-Western rhetoric, and abandoned its agenda of “exporting the revolution” after 1991. It laid to rest its nuclear ambition and realigned its politics in the Western Hemisphere.

This stands in contrast with Iran’s hardliners who paraded US sailors they captured in January, have sought regional instability from Lebanon to Iraq to Syria and Yemen, and are sponsoring non-state actors in all those countries. Just yesterday, pro-Iran backed militias threatened to fight US troops in Iraq, while Hezbollah still points to an American-Zionist conspiracy that is playing out in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s moment in Cuba was followed by the gradual normalization of Havana with all its neighbors which stands at odds with Iran’s trajectory today. Cuba was granted a seat at every presidential inauguration in Latin America in the last twenty years. Also, Havana’s participation in several regional summits starting with the Ibero-American summits in 1991, is contrary to Iran's which is excluded from most of the major summits whether the topic is Arab-Israeli peace, inter-Gulf relations or OPEC.

Both politically and economically, the communist era that brought Fidel Castro to power is gradually fading in Cuba as property laws change, US investors flow and the talk on exporting the revolution has become history. Iran, on the other hand, is still grappling with such transition, as its hardliners pull it in the direction of regional meddling and antagonizing the United States. As long as this trajectory holds, a Nixon moment in China, or Obama's in Cuba is unlikely anytime soon in Tehran.

Human rights not a priority

Another message that the Obama administration is sending from Havana is that human rights violations, and domestic agendas of governments don’t set the policy for relations with Washington. While the US President has made a point of meeting dissidents, their arrest and a poor freedom record did not slow down the US rapprochement with Cuba.

This benchmark is not exclusive to Havana and is also rampant for US policy widely in the Middle East. Human rights violations practiced by US adversaries and partners in the region have not affected those relations since the 1960s. CIA director John Brennan often speaks highly of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Sisi, and military aid has fully resumed after army takeover in 2013. The Cuba turn will most likely reinforce his trend and the perception that human rights violations don't set the policy in Washington.

This approach will also likely continue even after Obama leaves office. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are promising a return to cutting relations with Cuba, and none of the candidates left in the race has prioritized human rights and democracy over security and strategic interests. GOP candidate Senator Ted Cruz has made a habit of praising Sisi, and Clinton has stuck to this approach while Secretary of State.

Nevertheless, the Cuba trip offers Obama his biggest foreign policy moment after eight years in office and with disappointments from Iraq to Russia. In the Middle East it signals to Tehran and other capitals that Washington can overlook theatrical slogans and domestic agendas, and pursue strategic policies that meet its core interests.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.