The political circus surrounding the Iran nuclear deal shouldn’t obscure the fact that President Obama won an enormous victory in negotiating the agreement and mustering the necessary congressional votes to sustain it. It’s the most determined, strategic success of his presidency.
Republican presidential candidates have denounced the deal as a sellout by a weak, feckless Obama. And polls make clear that the public is wary about a deal painted by critics as a bargain with the devil.
But Obama’s bet is endorsed by many leading strategists in the United States and abroad. Even in Israel, there’s grudging support from a growing share of the national-security establishment, who see the deal as preferable to any realistic alternative. The outliers are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S Republican leadership, who reject an agreement most nations endorse. The political reality is that Obama outfoxed them at nearly every turn.
A weak president Obama may be. But a paradox of his presidency is that he has been at his toughest in fighting for the Iran nuclear deal against Netanyahu, the leader of one of America’s closest allies. Netanyahu’s repeated attempts to scuttle the deal only seemed to make the president more determined.
Obama was clear about his intentions, starting with his January 2009 inaugural address: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” This broad quest backfired in its effort to enfranchise the Muslim Brotherhood and drive an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. But on Iran, Obama kept chugging.
Ben Rhodes, a White House aide who was part of an interagency steering group known as the “Iran Small Group,” described in an interview how the White House moved, month by month, to combine carrots and sticks.
Obama’s opening gambit was a March 2009 “Nowruz” holiday message to the Iranian people, coupled with a secret letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who responded with a list of grievances. The first negotiating effort was a modest deal to limit the Tehran Research Reactor but that cratered because of political infighting in Iran.
The United States gained leverage when it won global support for sanctions, starting in 2009 and expanding over the next several years. The U.S. trump card was its discovery that Iran was secretly building an enrichment facility at Fordow, deep inside a mountain. Obama was briefed during the transition, and he directed the CIA and other agencies to collect more information — to make a public case that a duplicitous Iran should be sanctioned. Obama also secretly stepped up the cyberattacks that became known as “Stuxnet.”
John F. Kerry was Obama’s wingman on Iran from the start. Kerry began secret contacts with Oman about brokering an Iran nuclear agreement in December 2011, when he was still a senator. In this deniable back channel, Kerry was the first to float the idea that Iran might be able to keep some of its enrichment capability if there were an agreement. That was probably the key American concession, and it has been bitterly resisted ever since by Netanyahu, who demanded “zero enrichment.”
More secret U.S. missions followed, as the pace of diplomacy quickened. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top aides, William Burns and Jacob Sullivan, met covertly with the Iranians in Oman in 2012. The real breakthrough came after Hassan Rouhani was elected president in mid-2013. Obama sent him a personal letter proposing negotiations, Rouhani responded positively, and secret talks began.
Burns and Sullivan made such quick progress that by September 2013, Rouhani told me a deal could be completed in three months. It actually took less time than that. An interim agreement was signed in late November 2013. Kerry, now secretary of state and backed by his undersecretary, Wendy Sherman, completed a framework agreement in April, capped by the final agreement in July. Netanyahu took his case against the deal to the floor of the House of Representatives but to no avail.
Obama still had to get the agreement past Congress. The White House initially thought it could gather only the 34 Senate votes needed to sustain a presidential veto. But after Obama reached out to critics, that total swelled to 42, enough to prevent congressional rejection altogether.
Rhodes describes Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran as an unlikely motivator for global support of U.S. diplomacy. “Their stridency created a useful sense of urgency,” he says.
Obama hopes the deal will be a bridge to a more balanced, and eventually stable, Middle East. Maybe, but for now, it’s a story of a high-risk diplomatic gamble that worked.