Obama's Nuclear Step Forward

Shortly after the news broke that a deal over Iran’s nuclear program had been struck in Geneva, Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, and Germany), President Obama made a short speech from the White House hailing the agreement, and noting the challenges ahead in hammering out a broader comprehensive deal. “Ultimately,” he said, “only diplomacy can bring about a durable solution to the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”  

Nuclear non-proliferation experts have been overwhelmingly supportive of the agreement, which offers limited and reversible sanctions relief in exchange for Iran curbing key aspects of its nuclear work. “The Geneva agreement is a good deal because Iran’s capabilities in every part of the nuclear program of concern are capped, with strong verification measures,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “All in all, the interim agreement is a good deal,” concurred Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and blogger at Arms Control Wonk. “The parties have given themselves a six-month window to see if there is some way to impose a verifiable gap between Iran's extant nuclear weapons option and any decision to exercise that option, while easing Iran's isolation and avoiding another war in the Middle East.”

But the deal with Iran marks more than a step forward for the U.S. in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, it marks a victory for a more progressive approach to foreign policy, one Obama himself articulated as a candidate back in 2007-8. During that campaign, Obama started, then won, an important argument about the uses of American diplomacy. Insisting that he would not be afraid to sit down and talk with any country’s leader, he took heat even from fellow Democrats. His Republican opponent John McCain went so far as to suggest that such ideas made Obama unfit for the presidency. “Such a statement betrays the depth of Senator Obama’s inexperience and reckless judgment,” McCain said. “These are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess.”

During the first presidential debate in 2008, in response to McCain’s insistence that talking to Iran would only “legitimize their illegal behavior,” Obama said that “we’re [not] going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that…have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.” Obama acknowledged that reaching out to Iran “may not work, but if it doesn’t work, then we have strengthened our ability to form alliances to impose tough sanctions.”

The hawkish view is that negotiations with the United States are itself a form of reward, which should only be given when the regime does something we want. In the Bush administration’s case, they’d long insisted that Iran should cease enrichment before talks, i.e. give up the thing being negotiated before actually getting to negotiate. Obama wisely discarded that policy, seeing negotiations not as a reward for our enemies, but as another tool to be used to advance our security. And the United States is better for it. For only one example, the amount of contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats over the course of Obama’s presidency—which is greater than all previous contact combined—has been a huge boon for American understanding of how Iran perceives its own interests, and thereby strengthened the U.S.’s ability to address those concerns as well as its own, in an agreement.

The hawkish approach, on the other hand, the one tried during the Bush administration, which involved making harsh speeches about the Iranians while issuing preconditions to meet in order to earn the privilege of sitting across the table with the U.S., only gave the Iranians time to advance their nuclear work. And oh yeah, invading Iraq, removing their greatest enemy Saddam Hussein, and establishing a government dominated by Iran’s clients didn’t help things much, either.

Which does a great deal to explain the Great Neocon Meltdown now taking place over the Geneva agreement. In the same way that the Iraq war was a real-world test case for their theory of how U.S. military power can magically transform the world, one they disastrously failed, so the administration’s Iran policy is a test case for Obama’s view of how talking to our enemies can make us safer, especially when used in tandem with other elements of American power—economic, diplomatic and military.

While difficult work lies ahead, it’s a test Obama is passing. Which means we should expect the outrage of his critics to get more shrill, and the efforts to undermine the sensitive talks over the next six months to get more intense.