by Robert E. Hunter
Well, Obama did it. Or, rather, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, the other members of the P5+1 (the UN Security Council members, Germany, plus the EU)—and let us not neglect Iran— have done it. This is not a bad several months’ work. But now for the denizens of Washington and Washington-watchers everywhere, plus every possible party in the Middle East, the “fun” really begins.
For people who care about Obama’s core objective, to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, the framework agreement concluded in Lausanne has to be seen as a good deal, a very good deal indeed. Yes, hard negotiations still lie ahead, to meet the June 30 deadline to reduce the framework to some form of formal agreement—with the form itself likely to be debated thoroughly—in part to meet legitimate concerns in the US Congress over its constitutional role in critical foreign policy and security matters.
But despite the work that must be done in the next three months, those who care about Obama’s core objective can already exhale with a “whew” of historic proportions. That is also true for people who believe in the value of talking with enemies as well as friends. As put by the late Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, “You make peace with your enemies— not the Queen of Holland.” During the Cold War, arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union had benefits far beyond the technicalities of agreements reached. Because of the very fact of negotiations, it became possible to talk about broader issues and to move, however slowly, first to détente and then to the end of the Cold War. That can now become possible between the United States and Iran, far beyond the results in Lausanne on the so-called “nuclear file.”
In practical terms, there is also a short-term benefit. It has been clear for some months that the US and Iran have a shared interest in combatting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in Iraq and Syria and they have even been cooperating in military actions (Shhh!). They have an interest in replicating their cooperation in Afghanistan that brought down the Taliban regime after 9/11. Now these complementary interests can be pursued without the internal tension of massive differences over Iran’s nuclear program. What has been agreed does not guarantee a change in the broader US relationship with Iran, but it is a “necessary if not sufficient condition.”
So much for those who will see the Lausanne framework agreement in the terms expressed by Obama and Kerry, along with the other P5+ 1 negotiators. But they will have only part of the argument in the days ahead. Those who oppose the framework agreement—including some, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have opposed any plausible agreement—will now redouble their efforts to undo Obama’s and Kerry’s work. Last month, 47 members of the Senate wrote their letter to Iran’s leadership warning that the next president could undo whatever Obama agrees “with a stroke of the pen.” This core group of senators is unlikely to change their minds. They and many other members of Congress, whether because of their own convictions or because of their responsiveness to either Israel or Arab oil producers like Saudi Arabia, will make it as difficult as possible for the administration to follow through on the pledge to begin lifting some of the economic sanctions against Iran, assuming both that a final agreement is reached and that Iran complies with the conditions that must be implemented first.
President Obama has also recognized the need to deal with the concerns of several Arab partners of the US, notably Sunni-led states that either worry about the Iranian nuclear program, that harbor deep hatred for Shias, or that see Iran as a major rival for power and position within the region. He announced that he will convene a meeting at Camp David with a number of these leaders, although the timing, the agenda, and the character of any US assurances have not so far been announced. The meeting is unlikely to be a love-in. But the president will have to be careful to find a balance between promises and risks. On the one hand, there’s the perceived need to provide reassurances about future US relations with Iran and security promises to its Arab neighbors. On the other hand, there are the risks of being drawn more deeply into regional disputes and taking actions that would forestall any future accommodation with Iran or its engagement in US-brokered and -backed regional arrangements for mutual security.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will almost surely request more US (and other Western) security commitments and the arms to back them up—just as Israel will seek even more comprehensive assurances and defense cooperation. But in the Persian Gulf there is risk of creating rigidities and further militarization of relationships that could get in the way of the long-term goal of fostering regional stability.
One thing for certain in the weeks ahead is that the Lausanne framework will be “lawyered to death” by its opponents, giving new force and meaning to the old notion of the “Philadelphia lawyer.” The framework is not simple, which adds grist to the mill of those who will want to litigate ever phrase, adjective, comma, and semi-colon.
But as President Obama faces the great challenge of defending the framework agreement in US politics, the media, and Congress, even before there is a final text to be presented for formal debate, the sheer complexity of the document may prove a blessing. The average American tends to look first and foremost to the president to keep the nation safe, not Congress, not the media, not the pundits. He or she will not be bothered with the fine print or all the haggling over details. The fact is that there is no appetite in the country for another Middle East war. Many if not most Americans are sick of the whole mess and would like to see America be quit of it. The president offers a way out, and he is taking the high road while many of his critics will be seen, correctly, as travelling the low road.
I personally recall the day in 1968 when the Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, gave a speech on Vietnam in Salt Lake City. He took a position that was read as separating himself from President Lyndon Johnson on the conduct of the war, and in particular the bombing campaign. But after making his basic announcement, Humphrey added some qualifications. As a speechwriter in that campaign, I worried that the qualifications would undo the basic message. Not a bit. The fact that Humphrey was staking out a position different from the hated LBJ caused so much cheering among Democrats who wanted him to take a decisive step that they didn’t even hear the qualifications.
President Obama is in a similar position. He seems to be making possible something for which there has been a hunger in this country: to move beyond the past in the confrontation with Iran. Yes, he has a lot of work to do to create an approach to the Middle East as a whole that makes sense, and that can’t be delayed. I will make my own suggestions in the near future. But he has already got right one of the core fundamentals, and it will be recognized by most Americans as such. It is called leadership.