More than a decade ago, George W. Bush cast Iran as part of the “axis of evil.”
During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton blasted as “naive” the idea that a U.S. president should talk directly with the leaders of rogue countries like Iran.
During that same race, John McCain famously joked about bombing Iran to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon.
Barack Obama has long wanted to try a different approach there. The then-senator disagreed with Clinton during their primary campaign over direct negotiations with countries with adversarial relations with the U.S., arguing such one-on-one talks could bear fruit. He has downplayed the idea of intervening militarily there. In September, after an exchange of letters became the two leaders, Obama became the first American president since 1979 to have a one-on-one conversation with an Iranian president.
Now, Obama’s approach will get a huge test. Despite criticism from powerful voices — including leaders in Israel and key Democrats on Capitol Hill– the Obama administration, along with the leaders of five of the world’s most powerful nations, have reached a controversial agreement that will temporarily suspend some sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran slowing its development of uranium that could be used to develop a nuclear weapon. The landmark deal is essentially a six-month testing period while the two sides try to reach a more permanent agreement to halt parts of Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama is being cast as naive, even from his usual supporters, for trusting Iran enough to ease sanctions. A former Obama national security staffer, Gary Samore, told the New York Times “at the end of six months, we may see another half step and six more months of negotiations — ad infinitum.” Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Sunday, “I hope it works, I have some trepidations .. … They are going to continue to enrich while we meet, that’s problematic.”
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, usually a stalwart Obama supporter, told reporters in New York the deal was “not a proportionate agreement.” And lawmakers who are big supporters of Israel, which includes key figures in both parties, are unlikely to strongly embrace an agreement that is being attacked as a “historic mistake” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But this is not like Syria, where President Obama was proposing military strikes a few months ago, a move that didn’t seem grounded in his broader ideas about foreign policy and had little international support. Through his presidency, Obama has emphasized he does not want the U.S. acting alone, and it will not be: Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia all signed off on the final agreement.
And it reflects long-held views from the president.
“There was a robust debate during the president’s first run for this office back in 2007 about the wisdom of bilateral communications between the U.S. and Iran,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman. “So this is something … that the president has long advocated.”
None of this of course answers the big question: will this move work? Will Iran stop moving on the path to developing a nuclear weapon? Ultimately, Iran may be hell-bent on a nuclear program no matter what, and no diplomacy could have prevented that. But Obama is trying to delay and ultimately stop that, in his own unique way.