Why Iran nuclear deal means so much to Obama

The framework of the Iran nuclear deal announced Thursday is nothing less than the ultimate test of President Obama's foreign policy doctrine.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington Thursday to speak about the breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear talks.

The framework of the Iran nuclear deal announced Thursday has set up the biggest test yet of President Obama's central foreign policy proposition: that dialogue and diplomacy are the best means of resolving differences with America’s adversaries.

Mr. Obama has already tested his premise with Myanmar, and more recently with Cuba, but their significance pales in comparison with the effort to block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb through diplomacy and to return Iran “to the community of nations,” as the president says.

With Iran, the success of Obama’s vision will be determined not just by its success in reining in Tehran's nuclear ambition, but also by whether the dialogue that has been absent for nearly four decades can nudge Iran away from years of terrorism and destabilizing activity in the Middle East.

Obama acknowledges that his approach comes with no guarantees of success, but he insists that its prospects are better than the alternative of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities – and very possibly setting off another war in the Middle East.

For their part, Obama’s critics worry that his concerns for his presidential legacy have led to acceptance of too low a bar for the Iranians to cross. Underlying the deal is a naïve conviction that countries like Iran yearn to be part of the international community, they say.

But Thursday was Obama's moment to make his case for relying on diplomacy to tackle tough challenges like Iran. A few hours after Secretary of State John Kerry concluded a surprisingly detailed and complex plan for limiting and inspecting Iran’s nuclear program, Obama was in the White House Rose Garden, calling diplomacy “our best option by far.”

The goal is a final agreement signed by a June 30 deadline that commits Iran to a long list of nuclear program limitations and inspection regimes. With that, “we will be able to resolve one of the greatest threats to our security, and to do so peacefully,” Obama said.

The deal calls for the international community, including the United States, to lift the sanctions that have strangled the Iranian economy as Iran fulfills its obligations under the agreement. Obama said the economic relief would be “phased” to correspond with the steps Iran is taking to implement the deal.

But he also emphasized that the nuclear limitations and inspections arrangements would be of varying duration. Some would last a decade, while some access for international inspectors would become permanent – essentially acting as tests of Iran’s behavior and of its readiness to make less mischief in its neighborhood.

Since Obama first extended America’s hand to Iran in his 2009 inaugural address, critics have attacked the approach for placing too much emphasis on understanding enemies while ignoring the needs and concerns of friends and allies.

If anything, that criticism has grown.

Administration officials say the president is keenly aware of the doubts and fears the overture to Iran has caused among America’s partners in the region. They say a key part of the effort to win US and global approval of the nuclear agreement will be reassuring those friends that engaging Iran does not mean abandoning them.

“We do understand that our partners in the region, the Gulf countries and our friend and ally in Israel, have very profound concerns about Iran’s support of terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region,” says a senior administration official.

As part of an effort to reassure those partners, Obama announced that he will invite the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, to meet with him later this spring at Camp David.

He also said he would be speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Thursday night and assuring him that “there is no daylight between us when it comes to our support for Israel’s security.” 

In his Rose Garden comments, Obama addressed the Iranian people directly, “saying what I have said from the beginning of my presidency,” that “we are ready to engage you on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.” 

Those words may be well received on the streets of Tehran. The harder sell is more likely to be with the American people and a dubious Congress.

In his comments Thursday, Obama described the agreement modestly as a “good deal” and “the best option.”

The coming months will demonstrate how much others agree that diplomacy and dialogue are perhaps the least bad means of addressing the challenges posed by Iran.

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