Why Obama has to lean in to the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Considering how much time and effort the United States spends spying on France, the last thing Secretary of State John Kerry should have expected was to be blindsided (as he allegedly was) by his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Geneva late last week. Surely, Kerry should have had an inkling that the French foreign minister and his boss, French President François Hollande, who is perhaps America’s most dependable ally in Europe at the moment, thought the deal to which the West and the Iranians very nearly agreed was a "fool’s game."
Rest assured however, there are several reasons this apparent screwup will not result in a major investigation as to what "went wrong." The most important of these reasons is that Secretary Kerry and his colleagues in the Obama White House were on some level relieved to have the clock stopped on the negotiations. One senior administration official acknowledged that late last week as it became clear that growing political opposition to the pending deal both domestically and from allies overseas demanded attention unless it produced a backlash that could have scuttled the agreement. In this official’s words, "we were saved by the bell" as the parties agreed to delay further talks until Nov. 20.
There are, of course, other reasons why this apparent breakdown between the United States and the ally with whom we have been working very closely on the P5+1 negotiating process for years, will not be overly scrutinized. One is that while in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Secretary Kerry asserted that it was not the French who undid the talks but the Iranians. He explained there was general agreement on terms but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team "couldn’t take it at that particular moment, they weren’t able to accept that particular thing."
Zarif for his part took to Twitter to suggest that "half of the U.S. draft" was "gutted" on Thursday night and not by Iran. He accused Kerry of spinning the breakdown and warned such diplomatic maneuvering could "further erode confidence."
In addition to the U.S.-Iranian "he said-he said" debate, there is also the whispered belief among some — in both the Middle East and in Washington, acknowledged by at least one person with whom I spoke inside the administration — that the last minute changes in language and the subsequent "rift" between the United States and France was too politically convenient. Both Paris and Washington were starting to feel the heat from allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and though France feared an economic squeeze on the big deals it has pending with the Saudis, the Americans could see organized opposition forming on Capitol Hill. The concern was that this opposition would not only result in the rejection of any deal reached with Iran but may even compromise a new push for tougher sanctions even as the administration was negotiating dialing them back. Such a rejection to the initiative would be absolutely devastating to the president, creating echoes of his failed effort to get Congressional support for his proposed very limited intervention in Syria to degrade their chemical weapons stores.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter who threw the monkey wrench. There was work to be done on this deal both in terms of strengthening its terms but also in garnering the necessary support before signatures were actually set to paper. Even given the Geneva agreement’s goal of producing a temporary freeze in Iran’s nuclear program while a more permanent deal could be struck, legitimate questions linger over whether the near-term deal could achieve that goal if it did not effectively freeze enrichment efforts and shut down work at an Iranian reactor capable of producing plutonium. Further, the Obama team still has a great deal of work to do — some of which is being done this week by Secretary Kerry and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman as they meet with allies in the Middle East — building support for the deal. This will be tough to do on Capitol Hill and in Saudi Arabia given that at, the moment, both environments seethe with distrust for President Obama.
No, even the Iranians should be happy with the delay… and not just for the cynical reason that any delay buys them the time they want and need to advance their nuclear weapons program. They also very much want sanctions relief, and to get it, they need the deal to win support from the U.S. Congress. Given the efforts of multiple forces to block the deal, this will mean the Obama administration and the president himself will have to systematically engage opponents in a way they seldom do on anything. Winning support on Capitol Hill and with the American people for such a deal is potentially the president’s next big domestic political test. Failure on this after the failure to win support for his Syria efforts, the blowback from the NSA scandal, and his unsteady and confusing Egypt policies would be a big setback for the president during his second term, a period in which chief executives often turn to foreign policy to shape their legacies.
Of central concern to those domestic and international skeptics and opponents of any kind of rapprochement with Iran will be how the administration will ensure any deal is being adhered to and whether they have the resolve to punish Iran for any missteps or misrepresentations. If the President and his team can make a compelling case that they do, and then such a deal is certainly a risk worth taking. However, if the deal is seen as a dodge, as a way to avoid testing the president’s resolve to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or even as a way to simply punt the hard questions associated with Iranian nukes to the next Oval Office occupant, then few will or should support what would amount to simply papering over one of the Middle East’s great problems.
In short, the most critical component of this deal is not the words drafted by diplomats but what lies in the heart of the Iranians and the president of the United States. If Iran reverses past patterns and actually complies, the deal could be part of a game-changing reduction of tension that all in the region should welcome. But because that is a change without precedent and one that goes against the grain of decades’ worth of Iranian behavior, as well as the character and commitment of the president of the United States, it is even more important to its success. If the Iranians believe President Obama is resolved to enforce it swiftly and decisively, it may work. If they think he will be reluctant to take tough enforcement measures, if they think he can be played — either because he wants the legacy of an apparently successful deal or because he simply is loath to run the risk of costly, dangerous military action against Iran — then history suggests they will play him (much as past U.S. leaders have been played in other such "deals" as was the case with North Korea).
One more caveat however, has gotten too little attention during the recent debate about these negotiations. Even if an agreement is ultimately successfully structured, implemented, and enforced, solving the Iranian nuclear problem does not resolve the Iran problem for the entire region or for the United States and its allies. But it would be a great step forward. That is not to be minimized.
No one should want a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or allow for such a volatile region (or the world) to be poised on the precipice of the catastrophe of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism. Though Iran has, to date, never been a nuclear power, it has caus
ed plenty of problems nonetheless. It remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It seeks to be a regional hegemon with clients at work at its behest in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. It can cause havoc in global oil markets via the use of conventional weapons or even just sabre-rattling that might jeopardize shipping routes. No proposed deal addresses these threats or those that may emerge elsewhere (as in Western Afghanistan, for example).
A nuclear deal with Iran is as desirable as it is laden with concerns. For the Iranians, should they ultimately seek nuclear weapons, a weak deal or no deal or a deal that simply gives them relief from sanctions for a while may be seen as a success. For the world’s major powers and Iran’s neighbors it will require not only a stunning about-face from Tehran but it will also require real vigilance, strength, and the willingness to undertake risky and dangerous enforcement measures for years to come to ensure its success. But much more is required. The United States must work with its allies in the region and around the world to counterbalance Iran’s less than constructive ambitions and initiatives throughout the Middle East and demonstrate to them that the benefits they derive from the meddling are too low and the costs too great. That means we must maintain and develop our critical alliances in the Gulf and with Israel; and as we have seen of late, that may be tougher to do in light of our policy errors and hesitations in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Still we must also continue to hope for and support internal changes in Iran. That is a trickier business, but in the end, that is where all these efforts will succeed or fail. Only with real reform in Iran, real pluralism, and a government genuinely more committed to solving domestic problems than causing international ones, can the situation truly be altered and tensions truly and lastingly begin to abate.