Iran deal: the ultimate test of Obama's 'hard-nosed diplomacy?'

The implementation of the complex nuclear deal – in many ways a road map for Iranian action for the coming decade and more – will be the toughest test of the Obama foreign policy doctrine, analysts say.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
President Obama speaks during a news conference about the recent nuclear deal reached with Iran in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Wednesday.

In announcing that world powers had reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, President Obama said the deal would test Iran’s and indeed the entire Middle East region’s ability to change.

But the deal concluded in Vienna Tuesday after 18 straight days of negotiations, strategy sessions, and midnight working dinners led by Secretary of State John Kerry – meetings that in a few instances sank into heated shouting matches with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif – will also be a test of the Obama presidency’s guiding foreign-policy principle.

For Mr. Obama, recent American experience has demonstrated that diplomacy with adversaries is a surer and more effective change agent than the use of force.

Now Iran and the implementation of the complex nuclear deal – in many ways a road map for Iranian action for the coming decade and more – will be the toughest test of the Obama foreign policy doctrine.

The Iran deal will go a long way in determining Obama’s legacy, foreign policy analysts say. For them, the perceived success or failure of the outreach to Tehran will have an impact on the foreign policy approach of the next president – just as President Bush’s decision to launch a war over Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction programs has influenced Obama’s convictions about what works in dealing with adversaries.

The Obama administration’s opening to Cuba is another test of the engagement-over-belligerence doctrine, but it is a mere dress rehearsal by comparison.

By the time Obama leaves office 18 months from now, implementation of the nuclear deal, the evolution of US–Iran relations, and Iran’s behavior in Iraq, Syria, and across the Middle East will very likely determine Americans’ assessment of the president’s preference for “hard-nosed diplomacy” over force.

At a White House press conference he called Wednesday to defend the nuclear deal, Obama presented the past months of negotiations with Iran as evidence of the effectiveness of his foreign-policy approach.

Calling the “hard negotiations” that culminated in the nuclear deal “a powerful display of American leadership and diplomacy,” Obama said the results reached in Vienna had demonstrated to the world what the US can accomplish “when we unite the international community around a shared vision and we commit to resolve conflict peacefully.”   

Obama cautioned that – unlike in the case of Cuba – relations with Iran will not be “normalized’ any time soon, given the problematic nature of Iran’s behavior in the region, including its continued support for extremist and terrorist organizations.

Indeed, no one thinks anything about relations with Iran will suddenly be smooth or easy.

“Imagine a couple that’s been divorced for 36 years that meet up again in Europe and spend a few weeks together in a hotel room on their own,” says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate in Middle East studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s quite unprecedented.”

But Secretary Kerry will very likely want to build on the relationship he developed with Mr. Zarif, Mr. Sadjadpour says. And he believes that part of the Iranian leadership – including President Hassan Rouhani – would like to develop relations with the US.

But other elements of Iranian power – including hardliners who oppose the nuclear deal – will resist any form of cooperation with Washington, Sadjadpour says, adding that he does not anticipate any rapid change in Iranian behavior in the region.

Given the conflicts within the Iranian regime over relations with the US, he says, “It remains to be seen if [the new level of contact with the US] can be extended to strategic cooperation on issues like Syria, Iraq, and ISIS,” the jihadist terrorist group that has taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq.

For others, the new turn in US–Iran relations is more than a test of Obama’s foreign-policy vision. In fact, they say, it marks its triumph – particularly over the Bush approach and its faith in the use of force.

“The Iran deal marks a pivot in American foreign policy,” says Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, a realist foreign policy review published by the Center for the National Interest in Washington that espouses a Nixonian world view. “It is a death warrant for the hubristic foreign policy course charted by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.”

Critics have been quick to condemn the Iran deal for having “given away the store,” Mr. Heilbrunn, says, and for emboldening Iran to ratchet up its support for some of the Middle East’s worst actors.

Yet even as he acknowledges that Iran is almost certain to continue its support for those regional bad actors – “Yes, Iran is sponsoring terrorism, no one denies that,” he says – Heilbrunn also sees Obama’s diplomatic outreach “putting a lot of wind in the sails of reformers in Iran.”

That alone is a development he says Obama’s critics, from members of Congress to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should want to foster.

But beyond such immediate concerns, Heilbrunn says he sees the long-term prospects of the nuclear deal as even more consequential, with Obama’s opening to Iran having some of the “overtones” of President Nixon’s opening to China.

“Obama is pursuing a far-sighted policy that aims to lure the Iranians out of the dead-end they’ve been in,” he says. “I think he sees an opportunity for a new course in US–Iran relations, and he’s going to run with it.”  

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