President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.
With the third round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna now in the books, most of the headlines surrounding U.S.-Iran relations are rightly focused on the challenges that lie ahead. Reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal by the mutually agreed upon July 20 deadline is doable – but it will be no small task. The likelihood of multiple meetings at the political directors level in July (and perhaps even June) is well within the realm of possibility. The more time goes by, however, the higher the likelihood that negotiations in Vienna will soon resemble the fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat diplomacy that secured the interim nuclear deal in Geneva.
As negotiators race to the finish line, the focus on sanctions and centrifuges will only increase. But to truly appreciate the very real viability of a comprehensive nuclear deal, it is important to take a deep breath, step back a few steps, and look at where the United States and Iran are today compared to where they were less than a year ago.
After 34 years of trading insults and threats, Washington and Tehran are talking seriously. They agreed to an interim nuclear deal, and are verifiably following through on their respective commitments. These are major achievements.
Putting aside three decades of hostility and suspicion remains a work in progress, and the United States holds an equal share of responsibility in achieving this. But President Obama has handled diplomacy well since Hassan Rouhani won Iran’s June 2013 presidential election. If anything, Obama has not received enough credit for being thoughtful, measured, and willing to become progressively bolder on the diplomatic front in line with events transpiring in Iran.
A few key points stand out:
1) Obama Seized the Moment
When opportunity presented itself in Iran, Obama had the confidence and judgment to develop and enact new policies. He made a conscious decision to use diplomacy to solve conflict peacefully and, so far, the results have been promising and unprecedented.
No less important is what Obama has not done. Since Rouhani’s election, he has resisted playing politics with the Iran issue at home, even pushing back against Congress when it tried to torpedo diplomacy with new sanctions. Instead, Obama has taken a long-term view. Looking over the current horizon, he has reminded people there are critical issues facing the two countries, and that the United States must be able to find a time and a place to discuss those issues – with whatever government is in Tehran.
2) Obama Didn’t Lose His Cool
We have also learned that Obama can produce foreign policy success even when the stakes are high. As negotiations with Iran gained momentum, the president displayed sound judgment in situations where information was scarce and conditions were sometimes changing by the hour. Negotiations in Geneva are a poignant example. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, Obama clearly and concisely navigated through the murkiest of situations.
In this way, Obama’s clear-eyed diplomacy is the essence of what we should expect from an American president. As the political dynamics in Iran shifted, so too did the tenor and substance of the president’s diplomacy – all the while keeping his sights firmly on U.S. interests the entire time.
Will Obama’s diplomacy produce immediate, lasting results? Probably not, but no one should disregard its efficacy. His efforts at the negotiating table have already proven far more effective than any amount of sanctions and “red lines” that the Iranians have consistently pushed back against.
3) Obama Played the Respect Card – And It Worked
Perhaps most tellingly, Obama has started to build a reservoir of credibility with Iran that has been non-existent for 34 years. But it was not the oft-repeated “all options are on the table” mantra that broke the ice. Instead, Obama earned credibility by demonstrating to his counterparts in Tehran that their views are heard and respected in Washington.
Obama has finally acknowledged publicly what many (probably including himself) have long known to be true: For any deal to stick, Iran also needs to be able to sell it as its own victory at home. Respecting Iran has manifested itself in Obama’s stated willingness to craft a comprehensive nuclear deal that allows Iran to make three important claims: “We protected our rights,” “We protected our dignity,” and “We didn’t give in.”
Nobody knows how the diplomatic process will play out. But it is clearer today than ever before that whatever happens, Obama must keep his sights on America’s longer-term interest of preventing war with Iran and resolving our problems peacefully through diplomacy. Ultimately, America’s goal should be reconciliation – not with any particular politician or political faction in Iran, but with the Iranian nation. By taking political risks and creating political space, Obama has preserved America’s flexibility and kept our sights set on doing exactly that.
There is a real chance that a deal can be made to solve the nuclear crisis peacefully. But it is going to take time, and it is going to take a lot of patience. The cardinal rule of diplomacy is simple but important to bear in mind: Whatever you are going to do is going to take longer than you think. And it is going to be harder than you think. The moment of truth will eventually come, and Obama (as well as his Iranian counterparts) will have to make tough decisions on whether to make painful compromises for peace. But overcoming obstacles that bewildered the five American presidents before him to reach the moment of truth is a victory that should not go unnoticed.
This article originally appeared in Muftah.Back to top