Nuclear Accord With Iran Opens Diplomatic Doors in the Mideast

Nov 25, 2013

WASHINGTON — For President Obama, whose popularity and second-term agenda have been ravaged by the chaotic rollout of thehealth care law, the preliminary nuclear deal reached with Iran on Sunday is more than a welcome change of subject.


President Obama boarding Air Force One on Sunday. He said Saturday night that a final agreement with Iran “won’t be easy.”

It is also a seminal moment — one that thrusts foreign policy to the forefront in a White House preoccupied by domestic woes, and one that presents Mr. Obama with the chance to chart a new American course in the Middle East for the first time in more than three decades.

Much will depend, of course, on whether the United States and the other major powers ever reach a final agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. Mr. Obama himself said Saturday night that it “won’t be easy, and huge challenges remain ahead.”

But the mere fact that after 34 years of estrangement, the United States and Iran have signed a diplomatic accord — even if it is a tactical, transitory one — opens the door to a range of geopolitical possibilities available to no American leader since Jimmy Carter.

“No matter what you think of it, this is a historic deal,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It is a major seismic shift in the region. It rearranges the entire chess board.”

Mr. Obama has wanted to bring in Iran from the cold since he was a presidential candidate, declaring in 2007 that he would pursue “aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iranian leaders, and ruling out the concept of leadership change, which was popular at the time.

But the president has sought to avoid being consumed by the Middle East, in part so he could shift America’s gaze to Asia. He has tended to view Iran through two narrower prisms: his goal of curbing the spread ofnuclear weapons and his desire to avoid entangling the United States in another war in the region.

On Friday, Mr. Obama huddled in the Oval Office with Secretary of State John Kerry over the fine points of a proposal to the Iranians. He was intent on making sure that Iran halted all testing at a heavy-water reactor, a senior administration official said, and in tying any reference to Iran’s enrichment of uranium only to a final agreement.

Still, pursuing a broader diplomatic opening, Mr. Nasr said, could alter other American calculations in the region — from Syria, where the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to Afghanistan, where the Iranians could be helpful in brokering a postwar settlement with the Taliban.

The prospect of such a long-term strategic realignment is precisely what has so alarmed American allies like Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf emirates and Israel, whose leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday condemned the deal as a “historic mistake.”

It is also what has stirred opposition from lawmakers, including those of Mr. Obama’s party, who complain that the deal eases pressure on Iran without extracting enough concessions.

“It was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Sunday.

Mr. Schumer said he would support a push in the Senate to pass additional sanctions against Iran after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving break. A day earlier, Mr. Obama had warned that new sanctions would “derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”

On Sunday, administration officials called lawmakers to defend the deal and head off the legislation, while Mr. Obama called Mr. Netanyahu to hear his concerns before the next round of talks.

To some extent, Mr. Obama finds himself in a predicament similar to that of his policy toward Syria, where allies like Saudi Arabia favor more robust support of the rebels fighting Mr. Assad. Some experts predicted that the tensions over Iran would only deepen because the administration would be determined to prevent the deal from unraveling.

“The administration is now a little bit hostage to Iran’s behavior going forward,” said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. “Iran’s bad behavior — whether it’s the Revolutionary Guard in Syria or the ayatollah’s vicious speeches about Israel — it’s going to be linked to the deal.”

The bitterness in Israel may hurt another of Mr. Obama’s priorities: a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians. Administration officials said they believed Mr. Netanyahu would be able to separate his anger about the Iran deal from any decision about whether to make concessions to the Palestinians. But outside experts have their doubts.

“The Palestinian issue is the big casualty of this deal,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former administration official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Now that they have an Iran deal, over the strong objections of Israel, it’s going to be very hard to persuade Netanyahu to do something on the Palestinian front.”

For Mr. Obama, resolving the threat of Iran’s nuclear programmight be worth taking that chance. He has risked angering European allies, particularly France, by authorizing secret negotiations between the United States and Iran conducted in parallel to the multilateral talks involving Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Those talks, reported earlier by The Associated Press, fleshed out many of the principles that wound up in the interim agreement in Geneva. Mr. Obama was briefed on their progress by Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who conducted the talks with the deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns.

Over the course of the negotiations, aides say, Mr. Obama became well-versed in the minutiae of Iran’s nuclear program. At a presentation last week with lawmakers, he ticked off the elements of sanctions relief that the West was prepared to offer Iran.

In a phone call Saturday afternoon with Mr. Kerry, who was then in Geneva, Mr. Obama went over the final wording, focusing on the preamble, which refers to a “mutually defined enrichment program” with Iran — essentially the provision that will allow Iran to enrich uranium, a privilege it does not currently have from the United Nations.

As Mr. Obama looks ahead, however, it is not the fine details but the big picture that is likely to dominate his attention. Among the decisions he faces is whether to treat Iran’s nuclear program as a discrete problem to be solved, freeing him up to focus more on Asia, or as the opening act in a more ambitious engagement with Iran that might give it a role in Syria, Afghanistan and other trouble spots.

Aides say that he is open to that, but that it will depend on factors that are out of America’s control, like moderates’ gaining ground in Iran. And given the extreme sensitivities the interim deal has aroused in the Middle East and on Capitol Hill, the White House is being careful to cast the coming negotiations narrowly.

“First and foremost, this has been a multifaceted, multiyear process to address a serious security concern,” said Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser to Mr. Obama, who coordinated Iran policy before leaving the White House in July.