Obama’s Next Legacy: Detente With Iran


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:

Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican likely to replace Rep. Mike Rogers as the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast Wednesday that he would like to begin digging into the administration’s Iran talks—in particular, the role played in those talks by the U.S. intelligence community. … Nunes said he thinks the deal being contemplated could lead to disaster. “Shouldn’t the Congress be concerned about the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon,” he said. “They are going to be close to getting a nuclear weapon because of this deal, this should matter to the American people.”

McCain said he, Corker, and Burr are also interested in pursuing more vigorous oversight of the Iran deal as well. “The Iranians are helping [Syrian dictator] Bashar Assad,” McCain added. “They are the ones that got the 5,000 Hezbollah guys into the fight [against Syria’s rebels], they are gaining more and more influence in Baghdad. And we somehow believe we make a nuclear deal with them and that will lead to other areas of cooperation.”

John Hudson wonders how presumptive Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will approach the Iran file:

One thing McConnell did not mention that will surely loom large in the coming months is congressional action on Iran’s nuclear program. This year, Reid single-handedly prevented a bipartisan bill leveling new sanctions on Tehran from reaching the Senate floor because the White House feared it would upend the fragile nuclear negotiations the United States is conducting with Tehran in Vienna. Republicans have shown no such concern about disrupting the talks with punishing sanctions. “The pressure is now on President Obama to bear down and negotiate a good Iran deal or face a resounding political defeat when the Senate votes ‘no’ on the deal,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Foreign Policy.

But more opposition from the right and the Greater Israel lobby might actually help get the deal off the ground – especially as the administration does not need the Congress to relieve some financial sanctions as part of an ongoing confidence-building deal. In this vein, Golnaz Esfandiari listens to what Iranian officials had to say about Tuesday’s Republican rout and what it portends for the nuclear talks:

Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Mahmud Vaezi said the victory of the Republicans in the November 4 elections will not have “any effect” on the nuclear negotiations. … But former diplomat Ali Khorram, who reportedly advises Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that the Obama administration could be forced into taking a harder line in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, if both sides fail to reach a final agreement by November 24. “Obama has to use the remaining time to reach a deal with Iran,” Khoram said.

Apparently addressing domestic critics, he said those who oppose the talks “out of ignorance” should “wake up” because he said Iran’s national interests could be jeopardized if there was no deal. “We should not allow Republicans to unite with Israel and witness the tensions we saw under [former President] Mahmud Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush because it is not in the interests of Iran and the region,” Khorram said in an interview with the official IRNA news agency.

Arash Karami rounds up some more Iranian reactions:

Outspoken University of Tehran professor Sadegh Zibakalam, who is politically aligned with moderates, told Khabar Online, “Republicans do not believe in decreasing conflict and creating friendly relations with Iran.” He said the Republican victory is “not to our benefit,” as “Within the Republicans, there are more who are opposed to Iran, and they think the way our own conservatives do.” … Fars News Agency interviewed analyst for US affairs Fouad Izadi, who said that he believes the chances of new sanctions being passed is much higher now, given the Republican victory. He criticized domestic analysts and officials who have focused entirely on Obama while “The problem is in the Senate.”

Izadi said that this victory should be a “wake-up call” for some in Iran and predicted that Iran’s problems with Congress in the last 30 years “will become more clear in the coming days and months.”

The Bloomberg View editors weigh in, warning DC not to spike the talks:

The alternatives to Obama’s sanctions-plus-diplomacy approach are two: sanctions alone, or airstrikes. Neither of these would end Iran’s nuclear-weapons program for good. On the contrary, they would probably accelerate Iran’s bid for the bomb and undermine critical support for sanctions in Europe. So long as Iran sticks to the restrictions on its enrichment program, and the current sanctions remain in place, there is no hurry to end this negotiating process. What matters is getting the right deal. Iran’s nuclear program is largely frozen. At the same time, Iranian society is gradually becoming among the least religious and least anti-American in the Middle East. Yes, the conservative regime remains hostile and committed to creating a nuclear weapons capability. Yet it also needs a deal to keep its growing consumer society happy.

Comparing Obama’s effort to seal the Iran deal with FDR’s struggle to get Congress on board with entering World War II, Scott McConnell urges the president to fight like hell for it, because his legacy may well depend on it:

There is little doubt that if Obama reaches a deal, Israel and its advocates will be able to generate a seemingly massive Congressional uproar to undermine the President’s diplomacy. But larger forces, both inside and beyond the Beltway, line up on Obama’s side. The Pentagon, it was reported recently, has been seeking to make deals with Iranian companies in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Will the U.S. military brass, having expended large amounts of blood and treasure to wrest Afghanistan from the Taliban, wish to see it revert to Islamic extremism because Israel doesn’t want Iran involved in stabilizing the country?

Maneuvering for an Iran deal will take all the political acumen Obama can muster, and more than he has demonstrated in previous dealings with Congress. And in terms of political skill and appeal, Obama is no Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the president has powerful cards to play, and will have the support of much of the world if he plays them well. One day peace with Iran may seem as inevitable as did war with Germany. Even though he was drubbed in the midterms, Obama’s chance to forge an historic and positive legacy still lies very much before him.

He should seize it with both hands.