One of the best and most predictive pieces of the 2008 presidential campaign was one by Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf, which examined the gambling styles of John McCain and Barack Obama, and what this suggested about their approaches to strategy. McCain, the craps enthusiast, was a risk- taker, ready to bet a thousand dollars on a single, luck-changing roll. This is the McCain we saw who tried to enliven his presidential campaign with the surprise selection of the comically unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate and who tried to change the game by suspending his campaign in the face of the financial crisis.
Obama, on the other hand, favored poker. A cautious player, Obama rarely took big risks, but, according to those who played with him when he was an Illinois State Senator, he almost always left the table with more money that he came with. This has predicted Obama’s general approach to governing, most notably with the Affordable Care Act: Frustratingly for his supporters, Obama folded quite a few hands, but walked away from the game a winner. The ACA is one of the most significant pieces of progressive legislation in a generation—which is one of the reasons the president’s conservative enemies are so feverishly committed to destroying it.
This also describes the president’s approach to Iran. The initial outreach to the Islamic Republic, combined with a set of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions, have dealt the U.S. and its partners with some strong cards going as the negotiations have progressed, something you wouldn’t really know by listening to the president’s critics.
On Monday it was announced that the talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) will not end in an agreement on Monday, the interim period deadline, but rather in another extension as negotiators continue to try to find common ground on the thorniest issues: The number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to operate; the duration of a special inspections regime designed to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon; and the pace of relief from the international sanctions that have severely damaged Iran’s economy.
On the second of these issues—inspections—it’s worth noting that the interim agreement signed by the parties last November (known as the Joint Plan of Action, or JPOA) put the Iranian nuclear program under the heaviest inspections regime it’s ever faced. Some in the U.S. have insisted that the new inspections regime must last as long as 20 years, which Iran is unlikely to accept. “Some restrictions may last for years, some measures will last decades, and some, like inspection measures under the terms of the IAEA's additional protocol, will be permanent,” wrote the Arms Control Association’s Darryl Kimball.
On the first, centrifuges, Iran currently has some 10,000 operating centrifuges (devices that enrich uranium, eventually making it more usable in a nuclear weapon), with another 10,000 not yet operational. The U.S. and its partners have reported floated an initial offer of around 1,300 working centrifuges, then reportedly upped this to 4,000; Iran has reportedly indicated that it could go as low as 8,000.
In July, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that Iran would need 190,000 centrifuges, almost 20 times more than any deal seriously being considered would allow.
While that number is not considered realistic, it does point to the challenges that both the Obama administration and the Iranian government of President Hassan Rohani face from their own internal hardline critics, who tend to use arguments that often echo each other’s, while accusing their negotiators of capitulating.
At a recent conference of Iranian hardliners, some accused the Rohani administration of being “ready to sell out the country’s sovereignty.” Participants held a placard bearing the slogan: “No Compromise, No Submission, Only Fighting With America.”
The online magazine Tablet floated the claim that President Obama “wants Iran to have a bomb,” which, for anyone aware of Obama’s longtime commitment to nuclear non-proliferation (the first piece he ever published as a student at Columbia University was on the subject) is pretty bizarre, barely one step removed from “Kenyan anti-colonialist” conspiracy theories craziness that have found a home in parts of the right.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, has long opposed any deal that leaves the Iranian nuclear program in place, which would leave Iran with the capability to create a nuclear weapon, should it make the decision to do so (a decision both U.S. and Israeli intelligence believe Iran has not made.) Like Khamenei’s demand of 190,000 centrifuges, this position is not seen as remotely realistic, yet, along with opposition from other regional allies like the Saudis, it has effectively served to egg on opposition in the U.S. Congress, where hawks, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have been preparing to submit yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions which could scuttle the entire deal.
Hardliners on both sides seem unable to grasp the idea that the U.S. and the Islamic Republic could, eventually, have a less hostile relationship, if not quite a friendly one, or that Iran could, someday, play a more positive role in the region. Yet it’s quite something that meetings between the Iranian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State, which would have been unthinkable two years ago, now seem unremarkable.
This is the idea that has underpinned much of Obama’s approach to Iran. In a January 2014 piece on Obama’s foreign policy, New Yorker editor David Remnick described “a new geopolitical equilibrium” that Obama envisaged in the region that could come in the wake of a nuclear deal.
“It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Obama told Remnick. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
For some in the region, this makes sense, but it also entails risks, says Brandon Friedman, a researcher in Gulf politics at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center. “Obama is betting that, in the longer term, Iran can be a more stabilizing and constructive actor. That may not be a bad bet,” Friedman told me in Tel Aviv last week. “The problem for Israelis and others in the region is that we live in the short and medium term.”
It’s important that the administration take those concerns into account, and to make clear to allies in the region that they stand to gain the most from a non-nuclear weaponized Iran that behaves better. But it’s also good to remember what one of Obama’s poker buddies told the Daily Beast in 2010: “He wasn’t a bluffer. When Barack was betting, you could pretty much know that he had a hand.”