Amid all the drama of the last few days – in which the inevitably triumphant Democratic coalition scenario segued seamlessly into the Republican lock on the Congress for decades – it’s worth taking a deep breath to see what’s really changed under Obama. On domestic policy, we had a huge shift toward universal health insurance – a shift that looks very likely to stay in place. On foreign policy, Obama has bet a huge amount on a long-game engagement with Iran. So far, the strategy has worked far better than most predicted. The sanctions have been effective in both getting rid of Ahmadinejad, and getting Iran to the negotiating table; the international coalition has stayed rock solid; Rouhani’s election made detente feasible; lower oil prices have given Iran an incentive to deal to save its economy; and slowly, Iran itself has changed in a way that makes an opening to the West much more feasible. For a sample of that, I recommend the Economist’s latest survey on the country. Money quote:
While the world has been cut off from Iran, it has failed to notice how much Iranians have changed. No longer is the country seething with hatred and bent on destruction. Instead, the revolution has sunk into the disillusion and distractions of middle age. This is not always a nice place, perhaps, but not a Satanic one, either.
As if on cue, this week saw a potential breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations, three weeks before the looming deadline for a deal:
Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked. Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon. … For the United States, the fuel agreement would give negotiators more flexibility.
Perhaps the most striking thing is the role of the Russians. Despite a dramatic worsening of the relationship with the US, Russia has twice now cooperated in key WMD restrictions in the Middle East – first by brokering the deal that destroyed Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, and now in helping nudge the negotiations past a stumbling block. At some point, those dismissing the reset may have to rethink when it comes to broader international problems. I’d argue that the next deadline can be breached, as long as serious progress is still being made and as long as Iran’s ongoing suspension of its nuclear program continues. But the deal is easily the most substantive foreign policy achievement in a generation. It should not be lost over an arbitrary deadline.
The incoming Republican Congressional leadership, of course, has other ideas: