How will history judge Obama?
Trusting diplomats across the table to adhere to decided-upon agreements is central to any negotiation. This takes on an even larger dimension when decades of suspicion and misgivings precede the talks.
US President Barack Obama, thus, must be very trusting of the Iranian officials with whom the P5+1 cut a deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear programme and easing economic sanctions on Tehran. He has staked his legacy on their word.
British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was in a similar place. He talked with German chancellor Adolf Hitler in September 1938 in an attempt to head off German aggression that threatened to restart world war.
Chamberlain gave in on several key points — “appeasement” it was later called — and trusted that Hitler would keep his word. However, Hitler scoffed that the Munich Agreement was “of no further signification whatsoever” even as Chamberlain went home and claimed, “I believe it is peace for our time.”
But Hitler should not have been trusted. The peace lasted less than a year. Chamberlain’s reputation was quickly shredded.
Chamberlain had the noble goal of trying to halt a war before it started and assure peace for generations; Obama, though, seems to be willing to push the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran 10-15 years down the path of history.
Obama sorely desires a foreign policy win to burnish his bona fides as a world leader.
His attempts to befriend the Muslim world and Latin America; solve the Gordian knot that is Israeli- Palestinian relations; “reset” relations with Russia; and set “red lines” against Syrian President Bashar Assad, limits crossed without consequence, all fell well short of their intentions. Even long-time US allies downplay their relationships — special and otherwise — with the Obama administration.
As Obama heads into true lame-duck status, Iran represented a last-ditch opportunity for a desperately sought foreign policy win. Obama claimed that victory July 14th with the announcement of the deal with Iran. He said that, with the deal, “every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off” for Iran. He promised the agreement is “not built on trust. It is built on verification.”
Other US officials admitted, however, that Iranian nuclear “pathways” were not completely severed since Tehran will be allowed to remain about a year from the breakout time to produce a nuclear weapon.
This seems more like pushing the problem down the road — and not very far down the road — but that is often the best outcome in diplomatic dealings. Well, at least the best outcome for those at the table who aren’t likely to have to deal with the consequences should the agreement fall apart.
Diplomats, at least publicly, are the world’s optimists. Certainly Chamberlain was, judging by his words after meeting with Hitler. Obama is in that position: He has to see the best outcome. His victory relies on trust of the Iranians. History will judge whether that optimism is justified.
Tehran says its nuclear programme was for only peaceful purposes; many international figures seriously doubt that.
Even after a framework agreement was reached in April, the Iranians said they had different readings of the document than Obama — echoes of Hitler’s “no further significance” statement. Will there be more such interpretations in the coming weeks?
A Saudi official told Reuters, “We have learnt as Iran’s neighbours in the last 40 years that goodwill only led us to harvest sour grapes.”
Obama has an agreement with Iran but does it assure “peace for our time” or only “peace in HIS time”? If the latter, the Iran deal would turn into a self-aggrandising moment that could turn “Obama” into a synonym for “Chamberlain”.