After Cuba Comes Iran

Does the "new chapter" with Havana mean Tehran (and a nuke deal) will be the next stop on President Obama’s legacy tour?

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What do Cuba and Iran have in common? Well… let’s see. Both are authoritarian countries headed by aging dictators; both claim revolutionary ideologies; both have relationships with the United States driven by a half century of bad blood; both have American citizens as prisoner/hostages; both have young populations eager to break out; both are under U.S. sanctions; and both carry complex political and Congressional complications for U.S. politicians and certain aspiring presidential candidates.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Both are the objects of the attention of a U.S. president who fashions himself a transformer still and seems determined to leave a legacy that sets relations with each on new and historic course.

One down and one to go?

The differences between Cuba and Iran abound. But take notice. U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cuba initiative should be a clear sign of where he might like to go with Iran on the nuclear issue in coming months. Here’s what ties the Cuba and Iran situations together — at least in the president’s mind as he contemplates getting to an agreement with Iran next year.

Legacy: The sands are rapidly passing through Obama’s presidential hourglass. With domestic issues bollixed up and the Republicans about to assume control of both houses of Congress, this president is determined to act, not sit. Add the Climate Change Initiative with China and the executive action on immigration and you get the picture. Indeed, foreign policy has traditionally been a presidential refuge when things at home get too complicated. And Obama is headed that way. Damn the naysayers, skeptics and ideologues in Congress and congressional torpedoes, full steam ahead getting a deal. Time’s running out for Obama, and he’ll never pass this way again. So why not move on Cuba and try for Iran too, an even bigger prize? And as I’ve pointed out before, it’s likely that both the president and Secretary of State John Kerry see additional opportunity in the Israeli-Palestinian issue if the March 2015 Israeli elections break in a way that produces a government willing and able to make decisions on the peace process.

Secrecy: Eighteen months in the making and perhaps longer the tick tock on the Cuba initiative s done secretly, apparently with the Canadians as the cuts outs and facilitators and even the Pope helping out. And why not? Serious things can get done out of public view if the timing is right. You can expect more of the same with Tehran. The Joint Plan of Action came about not as a result of noisy P-5+1 talks but from quiet diplomacy. If there’s a chance of a deal with the mullahs, it will occur much the same way.

Change from Below: The president would love to see the Castros and the Cuban regime go, and the mullahs too. But he knows how difficult it might be to get rid of the mullahs through outside pressure. As Iran’s Green Revolution of June 2009 revealed, even pressure from within couldn’t do it. The logic with Cuba is different. Obama knows that transformation and quick change isn’t possible. The logic here — as flawed as it may be — is to assume that economic and cultural openings over time will create pressures for change from within. That the Cuban people getting more of a taste of the outside world and enhanced travel opportunities travel would then be willing to demand more freedoms and expect more of their leaders.

I’m not at all sure that actually works. The United States opened to China and Vietnam and they remain tightly controlled. Still, that’s the president’s approach. And it must apply to Iran as well. After all, the U.S. goal isn’t to end Iran’s nuclear program but only to buy time. But buy time toward what end? The cynics might say that the president is hoping to get out of town without having to strike Iran or before his critics can say that the mullahs got the bomb on his watch. Others might see a different logic — that over time the Iranian public will get used to sanctions relief and integration within the international community and then they will press their leaders to avoid going back into pariah status. And so over time Iran moderates its views on nuclear weapons and other matters. Frankly, the argument seems like a stretch to me. Still, I suspect the president’s purpose is to at least be the initiator of what the optimists might call an historic beginning.

Create Facts: The president couldn’t repeal the embargo. But he can and did use his executive powers to open a pretty big door with Cuba. Some powerful members of Congress may try to close it. But he’s set a process in motion that’s difficult to reverse. Still, the Iranian nuclear issue will be much harder to manage. A real breakthrough will require a comprehensive agreement on a complex issue and significant concessions will have to be made by both sides. And unlike the U.S.-Cuban bilateral relationship, there are other moving parts, including the Israelis and Iran’s own troubling behavior on a variety of regional issues likely to complicate matters. But the president’s goal will still be to create a fait accompli and let Congress assume the responsibility should they try to block implementation.

What we’re witnessing is a president who has now done a three-for — climate change; immigration reform; and Cuba — basically on his own, and gotten away with it. And he’s received kudos from the media, his own party, and much of the public. In doing so he’s stressed the system and pissed a lot of people off, but in his own mind he’s acted both on his own principles and on what he believes is the national interest. The Chinese and Cuban initiatives were relatively uncomplicated compared with dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. But look out: Obama is now unchained and determined to score his biggest legacy yet — a deal with those savvy Iranian mullahs. Let’s just hope that the president gets a lot more from the Iranian deal than he got from the Castros.


Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2