A Bright Spot In Obama's Foreign Policy: Iran. Yes, Iran


U.S. State Department Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disembarks from his plane after traveling from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Vienna, Austria, on July 13, 2014 for allied talks with Iran about its nuclear program.

Who would’ve ever thought that the Iranian nuclear program—that’s the Iranian nuclear program—would be the bright spot in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the place where things were looking up? But that’s the situation we find ourselves in, with talks between Iran and the U.S. and it partners in the p5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council—U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China, plus Germany) having achieved serious progress.

This past Sunday was the end of the six-month interim period laid out in the agreement last November in Geneva. The parties agreed to a four-month extension of the talks in order to try and reach a comprehensive agreement. The State Department released a fact sheet on the extension’s terms, noting that Iran had complied with its commitments under the interim deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

While the talks have made serious progress, some key disagreements—particularly regarding the number of centrifuges and the pace of sanctions relief—remain to be bridged. But make no mistake: An agreement that prevents Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be a hugely consequential one for the security of the U.S. and its partners in the region.

It would also represent the fulfillment of a key Obama campaign promise. Back in 2008, Obama started and won an important debate about the necessity of talking to our adversaries. Criticized as naïve by both his own primary opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton, and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, Obama stood strong and won an extremely important argument about the appropriate uses of American power and the effectiveness of advancing diplomacy to advance American security.  

“I don't want to just end the war,” Obama said of Iraq in 2008, “but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” Obviously, this has proven far easier said than done. Changing the mindset that America can magically create great outcomes through the application of military force is a long-term project—and let’s be honest, Obama hasn’t always put his back into it as progressives hoped he would—but it’s worth recognizing that Iran policy is an area in which the president has followed through on it, and shown results.

Which is one of the reasons that those most committed to the old mindset immediately bashed the deal as a sellout.

U.S. State Department Photo

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he arrives at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, for a second day of meetings about the future of his country's nuclear program. 

“By accepting the Iranians’ right to enrich, it's a failure, but they're desperately seeking some type of 'win' that they can trumpet,” carped John McCain, apparently unaware of reports that it was the very indication from the U.S. that it would recognize Iran’s right to enrich that opened a secret U.S.-Iran bilateral track—and one of the reasons we’re so close to an agreement.

Writing in National Review, Sen, Marco Rubio—the Florida Republican who clearly aspires to inherit McCain’s mantle of head Senate neocon—claims that Obama’s approach “is the opposite of that of past American presidents, most notably President Ronald Reagan.”

It’s worth noting here how closely Rubio’s critique echoes past neoconservative criticisms—of Ronald Reagan.

In a 1982 issue of the New York Times Magazine, Norman Podhoretz so held forth, discouraged by Reagan’s engagement with Mikhail Gorbachev, which Podhoretz saw as a failure to encourage the break-up of the Soviet Union.  “[P]resented with an enormous opportunity to further that process, what has President Reagan done?” asked Podhoretz in a cry of anguish over Reagan’s foreign policy—helpfully titled “The Neoconservative Anguish Over Reagan’s Foreign Policy.”

“Astonishingly, he has turned the opportunity down,” Pohoretz continued. “This is all the more astonishing in that the risks of seizing that opportunity were and are minimal.”

“In the current Soviet effort to look reassuring, even liberal, there has been no more gullible collaborator than Ronald Reagan,” wrote David Frum in 1988.

By sitting down and talking with adversaries, Reagan proved his critics wrong, just as Obama is doing.

Despite the outcry from the hawks, there are encouraging signs the president has continued support for diplomacy. Speaking at the progressive Netroots Nation conference last weekend, Sen. Patrick Murphy of Connecticut indicated that he would support an extension of the talks. A letter from Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham, which laid out a number of potentially problematic conditions for any final deal, was supposed to close for signatures last week, but remained open because they’re having trouble finding Democrats who are interested in constraining the administration’s diplomacy. Just as with the Democrats who pulled their support from a provocative and ill-times sanctions bill earlier this year, this seems like an encouraging sign that fewer in Congress are willing to risk hurting the chances for a breakthrough with Iran. 

Talks are set to resume in September.



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