On March 21, U.S. President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge. As Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, explained in a conference after the trip was announced on February 18, “Our objective here is to do as much as we can with the time remaining to make this”—normalization with Cuba—“an irreversible policy.”
Another legacy that Obama might worry about protecting from a potential Republican successor is the nuclear deal with Iran, which took far more political and diplomatic capital to broker. Of course, the difficulty is that Iran evokes far more hostility in Congress than Cuba does. Obama’s opponents have largely limited their disapproval of the Cuba opening to a refusal to lift the embargo, but they have already proposed more than a dozen new sanctions to limit, if not roll back entirely, the nuclear agreement with Iran. Still, there are a number of steps that Obama can take to guarantee that the Iran deal remains intact after he leaves office.
First, to ensure that the implementation of the nuclear accord proceeds as smoothly as possible without dissent or disruption from Iran, the United States must fulfill its obligations to roll back sanctions. So far, progress on this front has been limited, which is troubling. Despite the lifting of most U.S. banking and financial sanctions, some, related to human rights and terrorism, continue to cut off Iran’s banks from many U.S. companies, as well as any from business in Europe or Asia that also operates in the United States—which means all large banks. As a result, although Iran has resumed oil sales to Europe, not a single European bank will handle the trade. This has forced Iran to resort to bartering its oil for refined petroleum in lieu of actual payment. Moreover, Iran’s private entrepreneurs remain blocked from conducting cross-border transactions because foreign banks, for fear of violating U.S. sanctions, are unwilling to process Iran-related transactions. (In 2014, the French bank BNP Paribas paid $8 billion in fines for violating U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan.) Instead of empowering Iran’s private sector, this incomplete lifting of sanctions has allowed Iran’s state-owned enterprises to capture new trade and investment. To resolve this imbalance, the White House needs to show how banking transactions with Iran can be conducted without violating human rights or terrorism-related sanctions. If that doesn’t resolve the problems that have arisen, Washington must also consider lifting some of the remaining sanctions, including the prohibition on Iran-related transactions that pass through the U.S. financial system. Indeed, doing so is in line with the nuclear deal and can also be achieved through executive action.
Second, Obama needs to diversify the lines of communication between Washington and Tehran and institutionalize the ongoing dialogue between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The importance of this channel of communication became particularly clear last month: it was unlikely that Iran, which had detained U.S. sailors who had accidentally navigated into its waters, would have released them as quickly as it did had it not been for Kerry, who has Zarif’s ear. Some even say that their personal relationship, which was forged during the yearlong nuclear negotiations, was a significant factor in the eventual conclusion of the accord. When Obama leaves, however, this ongoing high-level channel of communication could go with him, which would be a loss for both sides.
One simple way to broaden communication is for the United States to sign an incidents-at-sea agreement with Iran, which would institutionalize contacts between U.S. and Iranian naval forces at the highest levels. This would avoid the kinds of mishap that happened last month and which occur all too often in the Persian Gulf, which receives a high amount of naval traffic. Washington maintains similar relationships with adversaries the world over, including Russia and China. For example, Washington concluded an incidents-at-sea agreement with the Soviet Union in 1972 following a series of threatening encounters in the 1960s. There is thus no reason not to sign one with Iran. Other areas of mutual interest where Washington and Tehran could engage in dialogue include environmental safety and cyber-conflict, which will be important in moving the relationship between the two countries forward. Such small but significant steps will go a long way in repairing the damage and suspicion that has built up between Washington and Tehran over the past three decades.
Last, Kerry should visit Tehran. It would be a historic diplomatic event and a potent signal that U.S.-Iranian relations are shifting to more stable ground. It would cement the current progress on the nuclear deal by demonstrating that the agreement—important in its own right—will lead to to broader political relations. It would also set the tone for an incoming president, enabling the next administration to overcome the conservatism typical of a first-term president and embolden him or her to pursue broader rapprochement with Tehran.
Obama has taken historic steps to resolve the decadelong nuclear impasse with Iran. It is time for the president to ensure that the nuclear agreement can endure the test of time. Failing to do so could not only unravel this momentous accord but also lead to devastating conflict with Iran.
This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs.Back to top