Obama’s Iran strategy and foreign policy legacy
Washington - With a year-and-a-half left in his presidency, Barack Obama views mending ties with Iran as a key foreign policy legacy, similar to what Richard Nixon did with China.
Obama seems to believe that a nuclear deal with Iran will not lead Tehran to more mischief in the region — as most Gulf Arabs believe — but will instead moderate Iran’s behaviour by bringing it out of isolation and back into the family of nations.
But whereas Nixon, who was viewed as a staunch anti-communist, could deflect criticism from right-wing elements for his opening with China, Obama does not have a lengthy history with regard to Iran, leaving him open to criticism. Nonetheless, Obama expects that history will judge him favourably.
Obama’s Middle East policy when he took office in 2009 was centred on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reaching out to Iran in the hope of striking a nuclear agreement deal with Tehran (a process that started in the last year of the George W. Bush administration) and laying the groundwork for better bilateral relations.
In March 2009, Obama sent the Iranian people a special Nowruz (New Year) message, acknowledging the Iranian regime by addressing the people and leaders of the “Islamic Republic of Iran”. He praised Iran’s ancient civilisation, held out hope for a new era based on “mutual respect” and said Iran would be welcomed in the community of nations provided it was ready to take on the “responsibilities” of membership.
He even sent a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressing respect for the Islamic Republic and his desire to restore bilateral relations.
Then the so-called green revolution occurred in Iran in June 2009 in the wake of the fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the official election results and the regime cracked down violently on the protesters, Obama’s initial response was muted. It appeared that he did not want to anger the regime that he hoped to negotiate with by siding with the opposition and he did not want to tarnish the opposition as US “stooges”. This stance provided fodder to his critics. Eventually, Obama criticised the crackdown.
This repressive episode and Ahmadinejad’s behaviour (going full speed ahead with nuclear development and making offensive remarks such as denying the Holocaust) led Obama to back a hardline approach, such as supporting additional sanctions on Iran.
However, the election of the more moderate Hassan Rohani as president in 2013 and Iran’s desire to get out from under the sanctions regime led Iran back to the negotiating table with the P5+1, with the United States in the lead.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process having failed in both the 2009-10 and the 2013-14 periods, despite strenuous efforts by Washington, and with ongoing problems in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, Obama sees a nuclear deal with Iran as the one promising development of his Middle East policy.
Despite widespread criticism — from Israel, the Gulf Arab states, his Republican opponents, and even some Democratic Party allies — of the interim deal that was concluded in early April, Obama seems determined to reach a final deal.
Obama has actively responded to critics’ arguments. In a recent interview with the Atlantic magazine, Obama said he did not agree with those who say that a nuclear deal and accompanying sanctions relief would lead to more aggressive Iranian behaviour in the region. He explained that, with rising public expectations, the Iranian regime would have to concentrate on improving its economy, particularly after “the reaction of people in the streets of Tehran after the signing of the [interim] agreement”.
Moreover, he continued, Iranian activities in the region are comparatively low-cost and that they have been pursuing these policies regardless of the sanctions.
In an earlier interview with the New York Times, Obama said that “engagement” with isolated regimes such as Iran, combined with core strategic needs, would serve US interests. He added that there was a “practical streak” among some Iranian leaders who want to move in a “different direction” than the one they have been on and this situation “offers us the chance for a different relationship”.
Looking at his legacy, Obama told the Atlantic that “I have a personal interest in locking this [nuclear deal] down” because 20 years from now, “it’s my name on this”. Obama not only hopes that the deal will preclude Iran from developing nuclear weapons but will put US-Iranian relations on a different keel and will lead Iran to become a much more moderate country.
And much like Nixon with China, he sees history judging him well on this issue.