Iran nuclear deal could complicate other U.S. foreign policy efforts in the Middle East

November 24, 2013

As it continues to juggle balls through seemingly never-ending foreign policy crises, the Obama administration finally has brought one safely to ground, at least temporarily.

The historic agreement reached Sunday with Iran marks a decisive moment in U.S.-Iranian relations and a potentially significant achievement for the administration. But the deal comes at a time when President Obama and his energetic secretary of state still face a panoply of diplomatic challenges in the Middle East — some of which may now get even harder.

In Syria, where U.S.-backed negotiations to end the civil war have been scheduled and canceled a half-dozen times since the spring, the parties on the ground seem less amenable than ever to a diplomatic solution, and Washington and Tehran remain on opposite sides.

Meanwhile, the Iran agreement, seen by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a threat to regional stability, may hamper his government’s willingness to compromise with the Palestinians in talks backed by the United States.

But for the moment, whatever critics may say of the interim Iran accord — and they are saying a lot — it has the virtue of allowing the administration to claim an achievement in something it set out to do. Whether Obama will be able to make the sale — after Israel and many U.S. lawmakers condemned the accord before the text was even released Sunday morning — remains uncertain.

The extent to which Obama can convince critics at home and abroad to give the interim deal time to work is also likely to influence the far more difficult work ahead of negotiating a permanent resolution to the Iranian nuclear problem from a position of strength.

“I think everybody has a right to be skeptical, because there are indications that there are people in Iran who have wanted to pursue a weapons program, that there have been secret facilities building some of those efforts towards that program,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Kerry dismissed those who have labeled the administration naive for trusting Iran’s good faith.

“You don’t have to trust the people you’re dealing with,” he said. “You have to have a mechanism put in place whereby you know exactly what you’re getting and you know exactly what they’re doing. And we believe we are at the beginning of putting that in place with Iran.”

At home, Obama and Kerry will have to persuade skeptical lawmakers of both parties not to move ahead with new sanctions against Iran that the agreement explicitly says will not happen.

Overseas, they must convince doubting allies to temper their public opposition and to keep criticism of the Iran deal from spilling over into other areas of U.S. interest, where the juggling continues.

The administration’s strategy with Israel has been to acknowledge skepticism and try to make Israel feel its concerns are being addressed. In a telephone call Sunday, a White House statement said, Obama told Netanyahu that he “wants the United States and Israel to begin consultations immediately regarding our efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution” with Iran.

“The President and Prime Minister agreed to stay in close contact on this issue as the P5+1 and Iran negotiate a long-term solution over the next six months” of the interim accord, the statement said.

Tension over the Iran deal comes as the administration, and Kerry personally, are trying to weather a rough patch in efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to agreement on a two-state solution. To the extent Kerry has been able to keep the talks going, it has been through personal diplomacy and convincing both parties he has their best interests at heart, a premise that Israel has questioned on Iran.

Saudi Arabia, engaged in a long-term battle with Iran for regional influence, began criticizing the current round of Iranian negotiations as soon as they began last month. Senior officials publicly voiced concerns that a “partial deal” such as the one just concluded would leave Iran capable of continuing to conceal elements of a nuclear program and able to produce a bomb within an unacceptably rapid period of time.

In a meeting with Kerry early this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal directly tied the U.S. negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to Iranian support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against U.S.-backed rebels. Inclusion of Iran’s involvement in Syria in the nuclear talks, Saud said in a Riyadh news conference with Kerry, would only “bolster” the negotiating position of the United States and its partners and would provide “proof of good intentions.”

Kerry gently argued for taking one step at a time, lest the myriad separate negotiations he is simultaneously juggling collide.

“We are well aware of Iran’s activities in the region,” he said. “. . . But the first step is the nuclear step, which we hope will open the door to the possibility to be able to deal with those.”

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