Obama’s Failure to Make the Strategic Case for an Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iran nuclear talks may be getting close to some sort of conclusion in Vienna, but American political and policy elites remain, to an appallingly large extent, clueless as to what is really at stake in the negotiations. (This was a significant theme yesterday in Hillary’s appearance on CNN, see here, and in Flynt’s appearance on CNBC, see here, to discuss the Vienna talks.) And, while the headline from a recent NBC News poll notes that Americans favor an Iran nuclear deal by a “2 to 1” margin, in fact, the polls shows that a plurality of Americans say they don’t know what to think about a possible Iran nuclear deal.

These observations underscore a point that we have been making for some time: President Obama has yet to make the case to his fellow Americans for why an Iran nuclear deal – and, beyond that, a potential realignment of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic – is not just profoundly in American interests, but is strategically imperative for the United States.

  • This failure will almost certainly make it more difficult for Obama (and his successor) to implement a deal.
  • Furthermore, this failure will severely circumscribe the strategic benefits that the United States can accrue from a deal.

At the moment, many American elites convey particular distress over the Obama administration’s inability simply to dictate the terms of a prospective United Nations Security Council resolution that would endorse a final nuclear agreement and, to help implement such an agreement, remove international sanctions previously authorized by the Council against the Islamic Republic.

  • In its approach to drafting a new Security Council resolution, the Obama administration has been demanding that previously authorized limits on exports of conventional weapons and missile-related technology remain in place. Iran, for its part, resists any text that would imply its “acceptance” of continuing international sanctions. Moreover, Russia and China are not going along.
  • Likewise, Moscow and Beijing have rejected the Obama administration’s demand that UN sanctions be lifted only for six months at a time, subject to renewal – renewal which the United States, on its own, could veto, thus realizing US ambitions to be able to “snap” sanctions back into place without being blocked by Russia and China.

That the Obama administration has been pushing these positions reveals much of what is so fundamentally wrong with the US approach to diplomacy with Iran. As Flynt pointed out on CNBC, “This was an approach that not only were the Iranians going to object to it, but I don’t think the administration ever had a serious chance of getting consensus within the P5+1, among the permanent members of the Security Council…It was foolish, really, for the administration to take those positions on those issues.” Yet these are the positions the administration took, and now it must either find a way to walk back from them or (foolishly) embrace diplomatic impasse.

Of course, this reflects weakness on Obama’s part – but not the sort of weakness for which neoconservatives and others constantly lambaste him. As Hillary noted on CNN,

“We have tried [the interventionists’] version of strength – invading Iraq; invading Libya; occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade; arming, training, and funding various jihadis in Syria and all across the Middle East. And all it has brought us is damage to ourselves.

The real strength would be, just like Nixon and Kissinger went to China and accepted the People’s Republic of China, we need to go to Tehran, as we wrote in our book, and make our peace with Iran. It will help us. It will resurrect our position in the Middle East and around the world. And if we don’t, we will see ourselves continue to flail across the Middle East and around the world…

The Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay, like the People’s Republic of China. What we need to recognize is that rising Iran, just like rising China, is a strong, independent power. And we need to work with them, not constantly try to bring them down and align with other countries like Saudi Arabia that get us into strategic disaster after strategic disaster.”

But that is precisely what Obama has been unwilling to do. Could the United States still “walk away” from the process? As Hillary said on CNN, “A decision by the United States to ‘walk away,’ to cut off talks with Iran would be just as strategically damaging, if not more so, to the United States than the decision to invade Iraq. It would have enormously devastating consequences for the United States in the Middle East, keep us on a trajectory to get into one never-ending, unwinnable war after another. And it would have repercussions for us globally, in economic terms and military terms.”

Stay tuned.

Flynt Leverett is professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett teaches US foreign policy at American University and is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy. They are both retired national security professionals, Flynt of the CIA, State Department and National Security Council; Hillary of the State Department, National Security Council and US mission to the United Nations. They are co-authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Visit their website.

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