Obama Narrows His Ambitions for Nuclear Deal

The U.S. president used to talk of transforming Washington's ties with Tehran. With the deal done, he's singing a very different tune.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15:  U.S. President Barack Obama waves while departing the White House July 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is traveling to Oklahoma to speak about 'expanding economic opportunity for communities across the country, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma,' according to the White House.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: U.S. President Barack Obama waves while departing the White House July 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Obama is traveling to Oklahoma to speak about 'expanding economic opportunity for communities across the country, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma,' according to the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Shortly after he took office in 2009, President Barack Obama recorded an extraordinary video message addressing the Iranian people and their leaders on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

“We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world,” Obama said.

He held out the possibility of “a new beginning” between the two countries and an end to decades of enmity sparked by the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and subsequent American efforts to isolate Tehran, including crippling sanctions imposed on its economy.

Six years later, Obama’s bet on diplomatic outreach to Tehran has produced a historic nuclear deal designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting financial and oil sanctions.

But when Obama sought to make the case for the nuclear accord at a press conference Wednesday, the president backed off any talk of the deal moderating Iran’s actions in the region, whether in Syria or elsewhere.

The nuclear “deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior. It’s not contingent on Iran suddenly operating like a liberal democracy,” Obama said.

“But will we try to encourage them to take a more constructive path? Of course,” he added. “But we’re not betting on it.”

Obama ruled out normalizing relations with Iran anytime soon, and rejected the idea of linking the deal to the fate of U.S. citizens currently held in Tehran or Iran’s backing of militants across the region.

For both supporters and opponents of the nuclear deal, the key question looming over the negotiations has been whether the president sees the accord as a way of transforming America’s relationship with Iran — resulting in formal diplomatic ties or a cooperation deal in Iraq — or merely a transactional agreement that imposes limits on Tehran’s atomic work and nothing more.

Obama’s bid to downplay any notion that the agreement could usher in a rapprochement with Iran was clearly aimed at skeptics in Congress, which has 60 days to review the deal.

A number of the president’s fellow Democrats are already less than enthusiastic about the deal itself, and the White House is anxious to nix the idea that the agreement is meant to quietly give Tehran greater influence throughout the region in exchange for nuclear-related concessions. That’s a particular concern of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, which see Iranian proxies gaining strength in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.

White House officials insist the deal is purely “transactional” and not about fostering change in Iran. Yet Obama and his aides have issued mixed messages on the issue, dating back to his 2009 video address to Iranians.

“The administration is very ambiguous on this point,” said Robert Danin, a former senior State Department official.

“On the one hand, the administration says we have no illusions about Iranian behavior,” said Danin, now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“At the same time, the president does hint that there is hope that this can be transformative.”

When he announced the agreement on Tuesday, Obama — echoing his 2009 message — suggested the accord could mean more than just imposing limits on Iran’s centrifuges.

“This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction. We should seize it,” Obama said.

And in an interview with National Public Radio in April, after an interim nuclear accord was unveiled, Obama expressed hope that the agreement could undercut the most hard-line elements in Iran by showing ordinary Iranians the benefits of a more conciliatory approach.

He said that “it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.”

With no nuclear deal, pragmatists like Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would have seen their political leverage collapse back home, as they would have returned from the talks with nothing to show for their diplomatic approach to Washington, one administration official said.

At least with an agreement, there is some possibility the reformists will gain traction. But, the official told Foreign Policy, “there are no guarantees.”

Relations between Iran and the United States ruptured after the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days in the wake of the revolution that overthrew the country’s monarchy.

In the decades since, the tantalizing possibility of a rapprochement between the two countries was tentatively explored by diplomats and discussed endlessly by Iran watchers.

During former President Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States put out some positive but cautious feelers. Seeking to acknowledge a long-festering source of resentment among Iranians, Washington issued a public apology for the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953.

But nothing came of that bid or other similar attempts.

Whatever the outcome of the nuclear accord clinched this week, relations between the United States and Iran have already entered an unprecedented thaw, despite underlying tensions over Israel and a spate of issues.

For the first time since 1979, senior American and Iranian diplomats have been in regular face-to-face communication, thanks to several years of nuclear negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry has spent hours in one-on-one meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, something that would have been impossible before America directly entered the nuclear talks in 2008.

The officials taking part began to establish a rapport. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the American delegation’s scientific expert on all technical questions, even presented a gift of baby clothes to his counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, to celebrate the birth of the Iranian negotiator’s grandchild.

The nuclear discussions have established a line of communication that did not exist before, a de facto diplomatic channel even though the two countries have no formal relations.

Obama said Wednesday diplomatic ties would remain “limited” and ruled out reopening long-shuttered embassies, unlike with Cuba — where an American embassy will open this month.

But a possible warming of relations could see U.S. and Iranian officials hammering out a deal to permit more cooperation to bolster their efforts against Islamic State jihadis in Iraq. Some analysts have even predicted that Iran could eventually take part in international discussions on how to settle the conflict in Syria, where proxies backed by Tehran are fighting to defend the embattled regime.

Washington and Tehran already are fighting against a common enemy in the Islamic State. The two countries deny working together directly, but both governments are coordinating their operations through Baghdad’s leadership, which effectively amounts to the same thing.

In Syria, American aircraft regularly bomb Islamic State jihadis but refrain from going after the Syrian regime or the Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters supporting it.

The powerful head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, is perhaps the best illustration of an emerging but often awkward détente between the two powers.

Over the past decade, Suleimani, labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government, oversaw the arming and training of Shiite fighters that attacked U.S. troops in Iraq. But he is now managing the same militias in a ground war against the Islamic State, while U.S-led coalition warplanes strike the same adversary from the air.

The sense that the ground is shifting between Washington and Tehran has raised alarms in Israel and the Arab Gulf states — and in Congress. They fear the nuclear deal is start of a project to realign U.S. interests in the Middle East in favor of Iran at the expense of America’s longtime allies.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of the deal, said Tuesday the agreement was “delusional” as it assumed Iran’s theocratic regime would change its stripes.

The deal “is built far too much on hope — on the belief that somehow the Iranian government will fundamentally change in the next several years, such that it can be trusted with a growing arsenal, a huge influx of cash, and the infrastructure of a nuclear program,” he said.

Obama has tried to reassure traditional U.S. partners that the old alliances are solid. And he has drawn a parallel with arms control talks between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, saying that Washington has everything to gain in a hard-nosed dialogue with its foes.

Some advocates of the deal see a potential parallel with President Richard Nixon’s decision to pursue friendly ties with China in 1972, which ended years of hostility and exploited Beijing’s rift with Moscow.

But opponents have pointed out that China decided to make a major strategic shift when it normalized relations with the United States, while there is no such sign of a break with the past from Iran’s leadership.

“I’m skeptical that it is going to have a demonstrable effect on the regime’s behavior,” Danin said.

“Iran is active in Lebanon; it’s active in Syria; it’s active in Yemen; why is that going to change?” he added.

Marc Lynch, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, has compared the nuclear deal to the 1979 Camp David peace accords.

In that case, the United States had to manage different regional players that were “mutually hostile,” he said.

Eventually, if the agreement holds, “Iran might finally be willing to negotiate seriously over an endgame for Syria,” Lynch, a FP contributor, wrote in the Washington Post.

In an echo of Obama’s video address to Iranians six years ago, Tehran’s foreign minister, Zarif, issued a YouTube message in English in the final days of the negotiations in Vienna.

The nuclear deal could mean “new horizons to address important, common challenges,” Zarif said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, known for delivering diatribes against America and Israel, hinted in April that his country could possibly negotiate with Washington on other issues.

“If the other side gives up its usual diversionary tactics, this will become an experience for us that, very well, we can negotiate with them on other issues,” he said.

Inside the Obama administration, there are differences of opinion about what the nuclear deal might bring forth — or not.

But Obama has signaled that he favors leaving the door open to a potential change, even if that change takes years to arrive, officials said.

It is an open question what the Iranian political landscape will look like in 15 years when the nuclear accord expires, and when the 75-year-old Khamenei likely will no longer be in power, said Jon Alterman, a former senior diplomat and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Will the prospect of more normal relations with the world drive Iran’s next leader to pursue a more constructive course? Or will hard-liners feel it’s ever more important to double down on hostility?” Alterman said.

“It’s worth exploring the possibility,” he said.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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