Will Obama’s Legacy Start or Stop with the Nuclear Deal?

by Henry Johnson

Much to the chagrin of those who oppose Obama’s nuclear deal, there is no telling where the informal bonds created by hours of unrelenting talks will end up taking the US and Iran. The departure of Javad Zarif and John Kerry from Vienna will surely not mark their final farewell as counterparts. On at least a few occasions, both sides discussed matters outside the nuclear file. Time will tell whether these discussions will crystallize into something more durable. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter hinted at this possibility in April when, with regard to a suspicious convoy of Iranian ships heading toward Yemen, he said, “We are in touch with them through diplomatic channels.” The Iranian ships eventually turned around.

The US and Iran should no doubt seize upon the simulacrum of goodwill generated by this agreement and establish fixed bureaucratic channels. Such coordination would reduce the margin of error for miscalculation between adversaries; it could integrate parallel efforts and pool resources between tactical allies.

This possibility surely unsettles the deal’s opponents more than any of the quite defensible provisions in the agreement. Critics of the deal want to persuade enough members of Congress to reject what they term an unacceptable deal. But is this really what they are after? The 150 House Democrats who signed a letter in support of the joint framework, which the final deal improves upon, have all but forestalled the deal’s critics from unraveling it. This core of support will sustain President Obama’s veto in the event of a vote of disapproval following the 60-day review period that starts Monday. For up to eight years, the deal’s implementation will not depend on congressional approval. If Congress cannot override the president’s veto, the executive will simply waive all sanctions penalties, causing their temporary cessation in the absence of legislative action.

Countering Popular Misconceptions

In light of this likely scenario, the accusations common in the media that sanctions relief will fund Iran’s terrorist activities may aim more truly at tarnishing Iran’s image and disrupting further diplomatic progress. Veterans of the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency beg to differ with these sneering accounts of the nuclear deal and of Iran’s behavior. At an event hosted by the Middle East Policy Council last week, Nabeel Khoury, a former US envoy in the Middle East, and Paul Pillar, a former chief analyst at the CIA, applauded Obama’s achievement.

Khoury in particular urged the Obama administration to use the nuclear agreement as an occasion to resuscitate US-Iran diplomatic relations. “We should develop a better diplomatic working relationship with Iran rather than now using threatening words like ‘we will confront them and we need to up the military budget.’” Khoury agreed with the deal’s skeptics that contingencies should be planned for confrontation but questioned the rationale of putting this issue at the forefront of public discussions. “The DOD is perfectly capable of doing that on the quiet. What we need to be stressing is, ‘hey this is a good start, let’s build on it and let’s be able to sit down and seriously discuss all of the issues.’”

Although President Obama may share Khoury’s dream of turning the page in the history book of US-Iran relations, domestic political constraints make this temporarily impossible. President Obama has prudently shied away from challenging the conventional wisdom that Iran is run by crazed “mullahs” happily giving carte blanche to terrorist groups. Burdening his pro-deal campaign with an overt effort to open up diplomatic relations would erode the necessary support of centrist and pro-Israel Democrats. The president must focus on persuading his allies in Congress to judge the deal on its merits alone. A change in tone about Iran’s regional behavior could incite his party to break ranks, even as his rebuttals of anti-deal arguments lead to contradictions. Obama emphasizes that he will do everything in his power to confront Iran’s bad behavior yet also denies that sanctions relief will, in the words of opponents, “strengthen this radical and repressive regime and supercharge its support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorism, regional mischief-making.”

Popular opinions toward Iran, most of which seem frozen in time since the 1979 hostage crisis, will take years to thaw. “We’re unlikely to see a restoration of full diplomatic relations between the US and Iran for years,” Paul Pillar said. “There will continue to be domestic political resistance both in Iran and in the US against going too far too fast with regard to this relationship.” Diplomats can nonetheless work around this rigidity by setting up backchannels. If they ended a decade-long standoff without formal bilateral relations, they could certainly tackle other problems under the same conditions.

The Problem of Syria

Khoury argued that a push for more diplomacy between the US and Iran could deliver a solution to the war in Syria. Instilled with a measure of trust in Secretary Kerry’s negotiating team, the Rouhani administration could be open to such talks. The notion that Assad can rebound or win contested Sunni-majority territory is a fleeting one, and Iran’s strategy reflects a growing cynicism about his staying power. Iran has mostly pursued the security of Damascus and the Alawite coast, while Hezbollah has concentrated on securing areas near the Syria-Lebanon border. If the united front of rebels in the north maintains its momentum, Iran may seek less costly options to preserving its interests in Syria than by brute military force.

In a phone call organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour speculated that John Kerry will want to explore this possibility: “Now that [Kerry] has this strong working relationship with Javad Zarif, I would imagine he may make a push on Syria. And it will be a push, which in contrast to previous attempts, includes Iran with a seat at the table.” The path to peace in Syria is still fraught with unknowns and improbability. Sadjadpour was not sure whether the Iranians would double down on Assad and Hezbollah in the hopes of shoring up his power again. He wondered if “Syria is a black hole for them and it’s time to think seriously about a diplomatic settlement, which would at least preserve some of their interest.” Regardless of Iran’s openness, some Gulf sponsors of the rebels may privately reject and conspire to spoil US-led negotiations.

The promising possibilities raised by the nuclear deal should not overshadow the ongoing strategic opposition between the US and Iran. In Iraq, where tactical cooperation could grow as a result of the deal, the two sides remain at loggerheads. Despite the many goals shared by the two—including the destruction of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the territorial integrity of Iraq, and a responsible, democratic central government—Iranian hardliners refuse to give credit to the US and accuse it of creating IS in the first place. Clearly, Iran is intent on outmaneuvering the US. Engagement on security issues will, instead of channeling their mutual interests into alliances, delineate zones of influence between the two. Diplomatic progress can nonetheless ensure that they target shared enemies and not each other. In fact, one of Obama’s most startling declarations, to degrade and destroy IS, may depend on it. If the president can accomplish that in addition to the nuclear deal, he will have carved himself a presidential legacy as one of the most ingenious White House strategists yet.

Henry Johnson

Henry Johnson is a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs with a focus on Iranian foreign policy and politics. He is also senior political analyst for DRST Consulting.


One Comment

  1. Hassan Nasrallah: “more money for Iran will be good for Hezbollah”. If Assad (Iran + Hezbollah) loose in Syria ISIS steps in. Choose the terror you like.
    re: diplomacy
    Can you comment on why Kerry thinks why Khamenie’s recent remarks are “troubling and disturbing?”

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