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Washington’s Headbanging Diplomatic Duo

John Kerry and Barack Obama have been hitting their heads against the walls of the world's most intractable problems. With the Iran deal, they finally made a hole.


April 2, 2015, may well be remembered as one of the finest days of Barack Obama’s presidency. Of course, Obama hasn’t had many fine days. Virtually all of his successes in foreign policy have been subtractive ones, achieved by unwinding onerous commitments made by his predecessor. That’s why the nuclear framework deal signed with Tehran stands out: Obama has achieved something affirmative, fundamental, long-sought. He has demonstrated the value of old-fashioned diplomacy — a discipline he has rarely seemed to believe in, or practice, as ardently as his Secretary of State, John Kerry.

Of course, no one will long remember April 2 should the deal unravel. Right now it’s only an “understanding,” not a final pact. What’s more, Iran’s hard-liners could sabotage the agreement by violating its terms, for example through clandestine research on enrichment or weaponization. (If Ayatollah Khamenei unambiguously endorses the deal, the likelihood of such trickery diminishes drastically.) It is no less unlikely that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has insisted that the deal would “threaten the survival of Israel,” could scuttle it by assassinating a nuclear scientist or two. And then, of course, Republicans in Congress might refuse to lift sanctions, thus persuading Iran to halt its cooperation.

But all that buzzkill lies in the future. Let us, for the moment, accentuate the positive. According to the fact sheet issued by the State Department, Iran will decommission all but 5,060 of its 19,000 centrifuges; turn the underground facility at Fordow into a nuclear-free research center; redesign the heavy-water facility at Arak so that it cannot produce plutonium; idle its more advanced centrifuges; accede to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, granting far more intrusive access to international inspectors; and largely eliminate almost all of its existing stock of enriched uranium. This is far more than most observers expected.

Several issues left intentionally vague in the framework agreement still remain to be clarified in the final pact: The remaining scope for Iran’s program of nuclear research and development, the sequence by which sanctions will be lifted, the means to be used for disposing of Iran’s existing stock of uranium. Serious critics — as opposed to the spoilers who would have objected no matter the outcome of the negotiations — have good reason to withhold final judgment until those issues have been satisfactorily resolved.

It is absolutely true, as a Washington Post editorial alleges, that Obama had demanded a tougher deal three years ago. However, it is also true that Obama couldn’t have gotten that deal then — or now. People who say he should have held out for more concessions –including Netanyahu — are really saying that he should only have accepted the kind of deal to which Iran would never have agreed. For example, the Emergency Committee for Israel — i.e., William Kristol and the crowd at the Weekly Standardcomplain that the framework agreement gives Iran’s nuclear program “international legitimacy” by virtue of not destroying it altogether. That’s true, too. That was the price to be paid to get a deal at all.

And, yes, it is also true that while the deal will end the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran for a decade and, one hopes, for much longer than that, it will not bring peace to the Middle East. Iran will remain a state sponsor of terrorism, an indispensable backer of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad, an open wallet for Shiite militants in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s adventurism will continue to provoke Saudi Arabia into turning the region into a cockpit of sectarian struggle. And yet the best hope for a less militant Iran lies in a less isolated Iran, an Iran that increasingly answers to the aspirations of its growing middle class, not its zealots. The nuclear agreement will allow those aspirations to flourish — as the early news from Tehran, where citizens have already begun fantasizing about direct flights to New York, plainly shows.

Whatever its inevitable shortcomings, the understanding reached in Lausanne represents the fruit of six years of patient diplomacy. Obama administration officials had a theory of the case, which they have been expounding since the spring of 2009. First, they sought to engage the Iranians, as George W. Bush had not. Obama delivered a New Year’s message in the spring of 2009, and chose to keep silent in the face of the regime’s ruthless suppression of the Green Movement just a few months later. This failed to have any effect on then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a pugnacious figure from Tehran’s hard-line establishment. Obama was harshly criticized both for naiveté and pusillanimity. The theory of the case looked wrong.

However, Obama was able to use Iran’s intransigence to demand that the United Nations Security Council pass tough sanctions, and that major consumers of Iranian oil look elsewhere. In this he succeeded. The administration has argued that it never would have gotten that level of compliance from the rest of the world in imposing sanctions if it hadn’t made the very public effort to work with Tehran first. That is at the very least a plausible hypothesis.

The administration might have hoped but could not have known that the economic damage wrought by the sanctions would so alter Iran’s politics that Ahmadinejad’s chosen successor would lose to the reformist Hassan Rouhani. But that is what happened — a rare example of American policy altering the domestic affairs of a rival (for the better, that is). In 2010 the United States had no one to negotiate with; in 2013, it did. The last two years of discussions have been a slow, at times agonizing, unfolding of the dynamic produced by that moment.

It is striking that Obama’s greatest foreign-policy achievement should involve such classic statecraft. The Obama of 2009, as I argued in a recent analysis of his speeches, saw himself as a transformative figure who would work across the grain of traditional diplomacy, appealing directly to people around the world to demand that leaders address such global problems as nonproliferation and climate change. That effort largely failed. And the element of Obama’s Iran policy that involved forging a bond with the Iranian people failed as well.

There is a lesson here that liberal idealists, especially, need to learn: Appeals to human reason, to hopes for the future, to the wish for peace rather than war, cannot magically leap over the obstacles of national interests. Statecraft, tedious and compromising, cannot be wished away. The next president, whoever he or she is, will confront an unforgiving world which will not yield to oratory, whether in Obama’s or George Bush’s vein. It is best to recognize that now.

Obama has, I think, reluctantly learned that lesson. He does not have the temperament for diplomacy. The president does not seem to like his fellow heads of state, and would rather deliver his happy new year’s wishes from a distance. In this respect he is fortunate in having as a secretary of state a man who is practically addicted to diplomacy, and is prepared to spend whatever it time it takes to wear down his adversary (or friend).

Until now, I would not have said that Obama and John Kerry make a good team. Obama seemed to have given Kerry permission to embark on one failed diplomatic campaign after another. With each doomed effort, Kerry has opened himself up to more ridicule. Suddenly, however, the Withholder and the Embracer have proved to be an effective pair, the one patient and the other persistent. Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize when he didn’t deserve it. Now, perhaps, it will go to Kerry. God knows he’s worked hard for it.


James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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