Obama’s Iran Gamble Paying Off

by Robert E. Hunter

In the ways of the world, sometimes objectively little events can symbolize much greater ones. Thus the determination by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran has complied with requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), limiting its nuclear work and triggering the lifting of some economic sanctions, is trumped in the American public imagination by two other events. One was the swift resolution of the incident of the straying of a US Navy boat into Iranian territorial waters. The other was the conclusion of a “prisoner swap” of Americans and Iranians on the same day as the IAEA declaration. (Just coincidence? “Sometimes,” Sigmund Freud said, “a cigar is only a cigar.”)

In terms of the atmospherics that are so important in relations between countries, provided they have a realistic underpinning, it now seems that other developments in Iran’s relations with the West will be possible. At least the trajectory is in the right direction.

Hopes can always be dashed. But better hopes than fears. As of now, it is obvious that President Barack Obama’s gamble in negotiating with Iran—negotiations ably conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry—has enhanced both the reality and the perception of security in the Persian Gulf. There remain malcontents. But they are so far being proved wrong, at least in regard to overall regional security. Meanwhile, the national ambitions of various Arab countries, plus Turkey and Israel, to ensure Iran’s perpetual isolation, have been thwarted.

The catch-and-release of US Navy personnel, plus Iran’s recent firing of a missile within a mile of a major US warship, were minuscule matters in comparison with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union. But there is one commonality. Then, both superpowers understood the risks they had each taken and the need to modify behavior. That produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty the following year. The “naval incident” with the US Navy’s boat showed that Iran decided not to blow up wider diplomatic achievements, as it could have done. This was a victory for pragmatic elements in Teheran over the hotheads. The coolness of the US handling of the missile-firing in the Persian Gulf showed something similar. Although it took many years for the US and Soviet Union to stabilize and then end confrontation, both sides internally subscribed to the idea that it was prudent to start the long process toward a different relationship.

Recent events in the Persian Gulf have also showed the leaderships in both Teheran and Washington the need to keep tight control over their militaries. Thus Iran risked much by failing to prevent some Navy or IRGC commander from firing a missile close to a US warship. And someone in the Pentagon didn’t get the message that this was no time to be running naval exercises, for whatever reason, in the Persian Gulf. (It is also time to rethink the policy of keeping the Gulf stuffed with Western warships, which have little military or diplomatic utility. Iran knows that the US has no need for local deployments to be able to devastate Iran, and the Arab states know that Iran does not currently pose a military threat. Their concern is with US diplomatic allegiance, not demonstration of US military might.)

Indeed, the twin naval incidents showed, once again, that with naval vessels things do “go bump in the night”—and during the day. All mariners know that. That is why in 1972, at the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviets concluded an Incidents at Sea Agreement (which is still in force with Russia), so that accidents could be kept from escalating politically. It worked. It is long past the time when there should have been a similar agreement involving all nations with ships in the Persian Gulf. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his Iranian counterparts should take note. Both countries have been lucky in recent weeks. But luck is not a bankable currency.

Of course, the caterwauling in US politics is now in full swing over the lifting of some sanctions against Iran. If the presidential candidates are serious—a big if in a presidential campaign—they must know that, whichever one accedes to the Oval Office, he or she will be thankful for the JCPOA. All the campaign rhetoric about abandoning the deal is just that, campaign rhetoric.

Strangest of all is the bombast coming from Hillary Clinton, who already has her sights on the presidential election, not the primary season. She wants more sanctions over some Iranian missile tests, and she promises to “distrust [Iran] and verify”—thus making President Ronald Reagan (“Trust but verify” with the Soviet Union) look like a dove! Her comments are all the stranger given that Clinton was secretary of state and thus cannot be totally innocent of US-Iranian nuclear diplomacy. This is true even though she was never enthusiastic about the negotiations. According to her memoir, Hard Choices, she did what she could to scotch the possibilities of an agreement with Iran, whether realistic or not, fostered by the presidents of Brazil and Turkey and publicly endorsed by President Obama. Further, along with too many of her other first-term Obama cabinet colleagues, she has broken with two centuries of US tradition by attacking the policies of a president whom she served while he is still in office.

Perhaps Iran and the West, led by the US, are now turning a page in their relations, which can produce huge benefits. But the requirements seem to rest on the conduct of domestic politics in Iran and the US as much or even more than their interactions with one another. In the US, Obama has had the courage to take on the potent Israeli lobby and the less potent Arab lobby. Many of Israel’s supporters in the US—in Congress, the media, think tanks, and on the hustings—will continue to try making Obama fail in his support for the JCPOA and efforts to test possibilities in other parts of relations with Iran. They are acting in opposition to clear US national security interests. We must all hope that it is they who will fail.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Obama is absolutely correct and I will never downplay this good thing he has done even while I also will tell the truth about Obamas faults. Retrograde forces on both sides are hell bent to start a war so they can sweep up the population in the fog of war and postpone their own inevitable loss of power.

  2. Excellent piece of analysis; well-balanced. Such a pity that people like Bob Hunter do not stand for – and get elected to – high public office in the US.

  3. An excellent analysis! It is said that not only negative deeds will create negativity, but that positive ideas and actions will also be contagious and produce positive results. President Obama and Secretary Kerry (and of course President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif) should be congratulated for persisting in their quest for positive results despite stiff opposition by both domestic and foreign hardliners in both countries intent on preventing an agreement.

    As you point out in the case of nuclear agreements reached after the Cuba Missile Crisis, the present agreement between Iran and the West will also prove to be resilient, especially when its positive effects can be seen by both sides. The naysayers will do everything to undermine it but, given that this agreement is between Iran and all the world powers, they are bound to fail.

    It was sad to learn that the Department of Treasury has imposed new sanctions on Iran in connection with the missile tests. Iran as a sovereign state is entitled to defend herself and by common consent Iran’s missiles are for deterrent and have much shorter range than Israeli or Pakistani, not to mention American, missile. It is hypocritical to close one’s eyes to Israeli missiles despite repeated Israeli threats to attack Iran and demand Iran to unilaterally disarm itself. The latest decision is a remnant of the period of hostility between the two countries and undermines prospects for future cooperation. The West needs Iran’s help in tackling terrorism and resolving the crisis in Syria. Such negative gestures will undermine Iranian trust in the United States and will weaken the impact of the nuclear agreement that could have been used as a positive start for further cooperation.

  4. farhangi: The lack of reaction by the US to the totally unprovoked attack by zionist forces on the USS Liberty makes the news of sanctions being imposed on Iran for a non-threatening firing of a missile today must make impartial people wonder just what is going on in the US?
    I don’t imagine Obama or Kerry were behind this foolish measure aimed against Iran.
    It sounds more like the actions of the zionist neo-crazies in the US to me.

  5. “And someone in the Pentagon didn’t get the message that this was no time to be running naval exercises, for whatever reason, in the Persian Gulf. (It is also time to rethink the policy of keeping the Gulf stuffed with Western warships, which have little military or diplomatic utility….)”

    Is it any wonder that Iran remains so hypersensitive about US boats that drift over the line and into Iranian waters? Doesn’t the top brass at the Pentagon read the papers? The Iranians know from tragic experience what can happen when the Gulf is bristling with American armament on a hair trigger and probably think themselves lucky that another airliner hasn’t gone down in flames.

    The US is not so much Globocop as Globo-bully. The US military is so in-your-face vis-à-vis the Middle East (and not just the Middle East) without actually achieving what we expect of cops, i.e., the restoration of neighbourhood tranquility. Sometimes I think the best thing that could happen to the Middle East is if the US withdrew completely and took Israel with it. Right now, I’d settle for some blessèd silence from both the neocons and the GOP candidates who are bent on scuttling the JCPOA.

    And if Americans aren’t growing increasingly uneasy with Hillary’s rhetoric (not to mention her record) vis-à-vis her former boss and the turmoil in the Middle East, they’re not paying attention. I liked her better when Eleanor Roosevelt was her role model; this Madeline Albright act of hers scares me.

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