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Stephen M. Walt

Iran Is the Real Prize for Obama’s Foreign Policy

After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn’t expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my ...

Photo:  ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

After President Barack Obama was re-elected last year, I wrote that I didn’t expect him to devote much attention to foreign affairs and that we should not expect any major breakthroughs in that arena. In light of recent events (e.g., Syria, the relaunching of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, etc.), does my position need rethinking?

Yes and no.

It is true that the Syria business has forced Obama to spend more time on foreign affairs than he probably wanted to, but let’s not forget that what happens in Syria is not that important in the larger scheme of things. Yes, it is obviously important to the people of Syria and to some of their immediate neighbors, but Syria itself is just not that powerful or influential. No matter what happens in Syria — a victory for Bashar al-Assad’s thugs, the removal of all the chemical weapons, a complete rebel triumph, the establishment of genuine democracy, or the creation of an Islamist state, etc. — the broader trajectory of world politics isn’t going to change very much. So even if the deal in Geneva works out as well as one might hope, and even if I gave Obama & Co. full credit for the deal (which they don’t deserve), I wouldn’t score it as a "major" foreign-policy achievement.

Now for some more bad news. Right now, it doesn’t look like the main currents of the so-called "Arab Spring" are going to turn out well either, at least not in the short term. Given that Obama pushed for greater openness throughout the region, having to tacitly support a military coup and crackdown in Egypt hardly seems like a big win for U.S. policy. Similarly, the resumption of "peace talks" between Israel and the Palestinians is not a success unless it actually gets all the way to the finish line and produces a viable Palestinian state. How many of you would bet $5 on that outcome? Instead, as Ian Lustick laid out clearly in the New York Times yesterday, what we have is a "peace process" that does far more harm than good. Actually achieving a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a major achievement, but is the talks are far, far more likely to end in another ignominious failure.

So where might a genuine foreign-policy accomplishment be found? The obvious place is the troubled U.S. relationship with Iran. Iran is a potentially powerful and influential state (though not the looming danger that threat-mongers often depict), and a positive relationship between Tehran and Washington would benefit both countries. Indeed, even having a more normal sort of rivalry — including diplomatic recognition — would make it easier to deal with the various areas of friction that might remain. That is why people like Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomat Thomas Pickering see the present moment as a golden opportunity to explore a fundamentally different relationship with Tehran.

Remember also that Obama took office hoping to both get a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and turn the broader relationship in a positive direction. He failed, partly because the 2009 presidential election in Iran went the wrong way and turned violent and partly because the administration made several key mistakes of its own (as detailed by Trita Parsi here).

But right now a lot of the stars are lining up differently. Iran’s new president seems to be genuinely interested in resolving a lot of the existing differences and has been sending all sorts of positive signals. The Obama administration seems receptive and has subtly acknowledged the reality that Iran is a major stakeholder in regional security and cannot be excluded or ostracized forever. Despite the occasional bluster and the need to appease domestic pressure for a hard-line stance, nobody in the administration seems to be genuinely interested in so-called "kinetic options" (i.e., using force). The State Department, armed services, and intelligence agencies don’t seem to be pushing for military confrontation either.

Moreover, the basic outlines of a nuclear deal are well-known to all the parties. It is unrealistic to expect Iran to give up all nuclear enrichment, but it is realistic to imagine the Iranians agreeing to limit their activities in various ways and stay some distance away from a "breakout" capability. They won’t stay that far, of course, because Iran has good security-related reasons to want a nuclear weapons option (just as Japan and some other countries do). So the question to negotiate is, just how far is far enough?

Will Obama and President Hasan Rouhani be able to pull this off? I don’t know. Previous Iranian and U.S. presidents have tried (somewhat halfheartedly), and their efforts have been derailed by domestic opposition. Today, we don’t know whether Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will let Rouhani go as far as he will need to, just as we don’t know whether the various yahoos in Congress and other hard-line groups will go to the mattresses to prevent Obama from pursuing a sensible deal. (To show you the foolish lengths that some of these groups will go to derail progress, last week the lobbying group United Against Nuclear Iran issued a press release demanding that a New York hotel refuse to allow Rouhani to stay there when he visits for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session later this month. The only purpose behind such a silly and vindictive proposal is to toss another roadblock in the face of negotiations; fortunately, nobody seems to be paying much attention to them.)

The recent brouhaha over striking Syria suggests that a lot of Americans (and more than a few Congresspersons) have no interest in another Middle Eastern war, which is good news for those who favor diplomacy. But that episode also suggests that Obama doesn’t have a lot of clout on the Hill these days and that any attempt at a genuine détente with Iran is bound to face a lot of vocal opposition up there. Nor does the administration’s handling of the Syria business give one confidence that it knows how to orchestrate a complicated, protracted process that will involve negotiations with a prickly adversary while simultaneously building support for that policy at home. I may be underestimating the administration, but that’s what the record shows so far.

In his first term, Obama’s foreign-policy achievements were limited by his reluctance to take bold action and face down domestic opposition. He gave a lot of good speeches and showed a lot of the right instincts, but he backed down whenever he faced domestic pushback. If he is hoping for a legacy beyond Obamacare, progress on gay rights, and a less-than-sensational economic recovery, he’s going to have to be bolder and he’s going to have to pay less attention to the people and groups who have derailed a more sensible U.S. policy for decades. And he should. Because the Syria business also suggests that a lot of the foreign-policy establishment (in both parties) is out of step with the broader public, and in this case the public is right.

And if the president can’t ignore foolish advice from hawkish special interest groups — and especially those whose prior track record is abysmal — then what’s the point of being a lame duck?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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