Iran was the country most on President Obama’s agenda when he offered in his 2009 inauguration speech to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Since Iran’s theocratic revolution in 1979, relations with the United States had been practically nonexistent. By the beginning of the 21st century, concern was growing that the ayatollahs in charge were bent on building a nuclear weapon.
Over the years, sporadic attempts at establishing a line of communication had made little progress, and Obama’s early efforts met the same fate. As intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities grew more alarming, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spearheaded a successful effort to crack down on Tehran with ever-increasing economic sanctions and international isolation.
The window of possibility began to open with the May 2013 election of a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who indicated that he was prepared — within the narrow parameters allowed by change-averse religious and military leaders — to open international dialogues. In September of that year, new U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat down at the United Nations with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Obama quickly followed up with a telephone call to Rouhani. Although Tehran continued to insist that its nuclear efforts were only energy-related and it had no weapons program, it agreed to a resumption of long-moribund talks with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France) plus Germany. By late November, they had reached an interim agreement that provided Iran with limited sanctions relief in exchange for a rollback on some elements of its nuclear program and increased international monitoring of sites inside the country. The deal also established a framework for negotiating a permanent deal.
Those negotiations turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Deadlines were repeatedly extended until the summer of 2015, when all agreed they were close to a deal. Kerry, Zarif and the other partners were closeted in a Vienna hotel and began what turned out to be weeks of marathon sessions to reach the finish line.
As Obama, Kerry and the rest of the administration worked to move elements of an agreement into place, however, opposition had been building outside the European conference rooms where the talks were being held. In March, Republican congressional leaders invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ardent foe of the deal, to address a joint session of Congress, an unprecedented venue for voicing criticism of a sitting president and his administration. The proposed agreement, Netanyahu said, “would all but guarantee that Iran gets [nuclear] weapons, lots of them.”
U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf, who saw Iran as a regional rival with expansionist ambitions, were also dead set against it, and found common cause with many in Congress who wanted to block it and impose more sanctions on Tehran.
On July 14, the final agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran and the P5+1 was announced. Its signers said that it increased the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear bomb — should it violate its terms — from two to three months to one year. Its lengthy terms sharply reduced the quantity and quality of centrifuges (used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade) that Iran was allowed to have; limited its stockpiles of low-enriched material; ended its efforts to produce plutonium, and imposed strict transparency requirements on all nuclear activities and verification inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Obama had promised Congress a vote on the agreement. In September, a measure of disapproval narrowly failed, 58 to 42, to reach the required 60 votes in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, an approval resolution failed 269 to 162.
Critics of the Iran agreement said that Obama and Kerry had carried diplomacy too far. The extended negotiations Kerry led on this and other issues — including failed efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace and end Syria’s civil war — they said, showed U.S. weakness. Kerry sharply disagreed.
Criticism has continued since the agreement went into effect, with some saying that release from sanctions has given Iran a financial boost to return to weapons development once elements of the deal expire. Many have vowed to work to change its terms or destroy it entirely. Obama and Kerry have sharply disputed the critics, saying that it is now more likely that Iran will quickly see the benefits of membership in the international community, and that one of the greatest threats to world peace has, in effect, been eliminated.