Does Obama Really Want an Agreement with Iran?

President Barack Obama attends a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 28, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

by Shireen Hunter

The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear file concluded in Lausanne on April 2, to be followed by completion of a comprehensive agreement by June 30, was an important achievement for Iran, the United States, and the other P5+ 1 negotiating parties. Now, however, a key question is whether President Obama truly wants an agreement, or whether he will pay agreement opponents such a price that he drives Iran away from the negotiating table. If that happens, all sides will lose.

No sooner were the Lausanne talks concluded and the communique read than disagreements developed and were publicly aired over how to interpret the framework agreement. First came the issue of the American fact sheet put out by the White House. The Iranian side immediately disputed the US interpretation of the agreement. This was followed by other statements by US officials involved in the talks, including the secretary of energy, which were at variance with the Iranian interpretation of what had been agreed in Lausanne.

Then there was the compromise agreement between the White House and the Congress regarding the latter’s role in approving any agreement that might be reached. Rightly or wrongly, Tehran interpreted this agreement as an indication of President Obama’s weakening resolve to reach an agreement with Iran, partly because in the past he had indicated that he would veto such a resolution. As it is, the compromise has pushed back the implementation of an agreement by at least two months.

Another issue causing anxiety in Iran is related to inspection of Iranian military sites that are not connected with the nuclear question. Iran has reacted negatively to a statement by the State Department’s spokesperson that, if Iran does not agree to such inspections¸ there will be no agreement. In fact, the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty only calls for limited and organized inspections of non-nuclear sites. Nevertheless, the way the spokesperson framed the question aggravated Iranian concerns, partly because, in the past, confidential information Iran provided to the IAEA was leaked. In response, Iranian leaders, from the Supreme Leader to the president and the military chiefs, responded strongly and promised that they would not allow the leaking of the country’s security and military secrets that could endanger its security. Meanwhile, hardline Iranian opponents of the negotiations stated that such acts would amount to “official and sanctioned spying.”

US Tightens the Screws

But these complaints were nothing compared to the feelings of betrayal and anger that more recent events have generated in Iran. For instance, US officials, most notably President Obama, have stated that the US will do whatever it takes to stop what they characterize as Iran’s imperial ambitions. Washington also decided to sequester 20 airplanes sold to the Iranian airline, Mahan, and to sanction the companies that carried out the deal. This decision was justified on the grounds that such prohibitions come under those sanctions imposed on Iran because of its support for terrorism and will continue even if a deal on the nuclear issue is reached. Of course, the United States also renewed oil and banking sanctions.

But even these measures were nothing compared to the spectacle of the recent US-GCC Summit at the White House and Camp David. Obama organized the meeting to reassure the Gulf Arabs that the nuclear deal would not mean either a normalization of US-Iran relations or a slackening of US commitment to the Gulf monarchies in their struggle against so-called Iranian imperialism, which in light of Saudi operations in Yemen sounds ironic at best.

These latter developments provided a golden opportunity for Iran’s hardliners, including influential clerical figures, to attack those who favor reaching a deal with the US. For example, during Friday prayers Ayatollah Janati styled those who believe in US promises and hope that sanctions will be removed and the country’s problems will be resolved as fools lost in unrealistic dreams (Khosh Khial). He asked rhetorically which is better: that Iranians keep their dignity or have a full belly. He answered his own question by saying it is better for Iranians to keep their pride and dignity and remain hungry.

Similarly, as pointed out by Ayatollah Janati, statements and steps by Washington have increased Iranian suspicions that the US is not serious about lifting sanctions and that it will find other ways of keeping Iran under a sanctions regime. Meanwhile, Iran’s negotiating team has been subjected to lengthy and grueling questioning by the Parliament (majlis). Some Iranians have even begun to doubt whether the P5+1 are serious about the successful conclusion of the talks. For example, Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy adviser to the Supreme Leader, recently said that some of the P5+1 are trying to drive the talks into a deadlock.

Plots against Iran?

Even more seriously, these events, the Saudi operations in Yemen, and Islamic State (ISIS or IS) successes in Syria and Iraq have created a sense in Iran, at least within its military establishment, that sinister plots against Iran are afoot. For example, the Supreme Leader warned that there are plans to bring proxy wars close to Iran’s borders and said that such efforts will receive a crushing response. The commander of Iran’s land forces also stated that Iran might be forced to intervene in proxy wars.

Nor are fears about IS plans regarding Iran mere paranoia. ISIS operations are moving close to Iranian borders, and it has reportedly tried to infiltrate Sunni-inhabited areas along Iran’s western and eastern frontiers. Some have even claimed that ISIS is present in Iran, although the authorities have denied this assertion. This view was reiterated by Mohsen Rezaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and one of most senior of the Revolutionary Guards’ past commanders to return to the organization. Later, on the anniversary of the liberation of Khoramshahr from Iraqi military during the Iran-Iraq War, he said that another difficult trial (Azmoun) is awaiting Iran, adding that Iran needs to resurrect the same spirit that enabled it to liberate Khoramshahr in order to meet approaching challenges. In short, a siege mentality is developing, at least among Iran’s political and military elites.

Thus far, President Hassan Rouhani and his colleagues have not allowed these new misgivings and doubts to affect the nuclear talks. However, if there is no progress in the talks along with some hope of relief from economic sanctions and hardships, and if the threatening language toward Iran continues, their ability to pursue the route of reconciliation and negotiation could be irremediably undermined.

US Choice Point

Clearly, the US must decide what is in its best interests and what kind of policies would best advance these interests. America might conclude, as some political leaders and others already have, that pursuing engagement with Iran is useless and that continued sanctions, isolation, internal destabilization—directly or by proxies such as Saudi Arabia and possibly IS—and perhaps even limited military attacks would be the best course. However, if the US and most notably President Obama want to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Iran, they have not been pursuing the right path over the last two months.

The US is right to be wary of Iran’s reliability, but so are the Iranians right to be concerned about America’s seriousness in reaching an agreement that does not amount to Iran’s unconditional surrender. Similarly, the US is correct to want to limit Iran’s regional ambitions. But it should not at the same time indulge the regional ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US cannot expect Iran to help it defeat IS—if indeed that is the US goal—while feeding Saudi Arabia’s paranoiac hatred of Iran and sanctioning Saudi aggression toward other Shias in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. After the fall of Ramadi, Iran is already questioning US resolve regarding uprooting IS. In a recent speech, the famous (or infamous) General Ghasem Soleimani said that the distance between the US base in Iraq and Ramadi is only 100 kilometers, so how is it that US planes could not help Iraqi forces in their battle against IS?

In short, the United States and President Obama must decide whether or not they want an agreement with Iran and a chance for better relations. If not, they should continue on the current way. But if they do want an agreement, they should refrain from policies and statements that feed Iran’s fears and misgivings and undermine the ability of its leaders to pursue the path of compromise and accommodation, if not yet of reconciliation.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. The 5+1 engagement with Iran about the nuke agreement has been, still is, a game from the get go! This approach was designed for inciting an internal argument in Iran and to divide the elements within the Iranian government being Rouhani’s government, Khamenei followers, the house of reps (majles) and the military orgs. The hope in the west has been and still is that the excited people about having an agreement and lifting of the sanctions are going to be very disappointed about having NO agreement after June, 30 and they are going to be running to the streets protesting all over Iran destabilizing the regime in Iran! At the same time, as I mentioned before, the ISIS is in its final stages of achieving the goals given to them by their masters reaching the Iranian borders which compels Iranian forces to move to the borders or inside Iraq fighting IS!
    Once again, IMO, the Iranians have made a great error by negotiating from the get go! They are beginning to realizing it now and a few political signals have been being sent to the people recently by some right wing representatives and a few military leaders and Khamenei to reverse course and perhaps leaving NPT if necessary!

  2. It appears the US is in a survival mode. In diplomacy, there are no real friends or enemies. In this instance and with a larger canvas, any relations with Iran is at a risk of weakening that with Israel. This is where US Foreign Policy meets US domestic politics to influence the next elections. It is really not Obama’s call and current negotiations and treaty with Iran have clear signs of unwillingness. Iran, or for that matter the whole of Middle East will be nuclearized. Everyone knows it, only that it is a matter of when. The US couldn’t control South Asia. Iran suffers under sanctions , but not enough to agree to an uneven treaty. The quagmire in the Middle East has been left to unscramble itself after US military intervention has met with partial success. There will be new victors and actors in the fighting zones and the US will accept new friendship, if only to prevent being under nuclear threat for times to come. US will need to provide leadership, and unfortunately military intervention is the only way they know. Treaty with Iran should be a no brainer. Iranian Imperialism?

Comments are closed.