President Barack Obama has devoted much of his foreign policy energies of late to negotiations with Iran – driven more by legacy concerns than the prospect of non-nuclear Iran – and on relations with Cuba and Vietnam. However, he has sidestepped the economic debacle in Greece and the continuing crisis in Ukraine, while giving little attention to concerns of allies.
Meanwhile, on global issues, both Russia and China are filling the leadership vacuum with destabilizing ventures to serve their narrow agendas.
The just-concluded deal with Iran has turned the old saw about “the enemy of my enemy being my friend” into “the enemy of my friend is my friend.”
Notwithstanding the U.S. administration’s desire to kick the Iranian nuclear problem down the road, it has conjured up the prospect of a new arms race in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps even the Gulf States now consider their nuclear options. The United States is seen as withdrawing clumsily from its allies in the Middle East, leaving the region more uncertain than when negotiations began.
The questions about the agreement are manifest. While the benefits for Iran are immediate and obvious, the concessions by Iran are less precise. Verification provisions are clouded by time delays and a tier of review procedures that smack of obfuscation.
“Any time, anywhere” has morphed into “where necessary, when necessary” or “some places, sometimes.” So-called snapback provisions in the event of any breach are subject to UN Security Council approval where continued support from Russia and China is anything but assured.
More to the point, as deal fever took centre stage, the United States abandoned its initial goal of “stopping” Iran’s nuclear weapons intentions and accepted instead a strategy to “manage” Iran’s plans, albeit with laboured caveats.
The first rule for any effective negotiation is to retain the right to walk away from a less-than-satisfactory outcome – no deal being preferable to a bad deal. That is the real litmus test for this agreement.
The argument that this was the “best available” deal falls short of a standard worthy of a superpower negotiating with the world leader in state-sponsored terror, activity that has now been emboldened. The suggestion that there was no better alternative short of war begs the question of why the original U.S. objective was not respected.
There is a direct, troubling parallel with the 1994 agreement in which the United States and others provided food aid and financial assistance to North Korea in exchange for a standstill on nuclear weapons development, a commitment that quickly proved ephemeral. The rationale given at that time by the United States is almost identical to the talking points now in vogue on Iran.
If there is one lesson from dealing with authoritarian regimes that trample the rights of their own citizens, it is that they show little respect for the rule of law at home and in their international commitments. Time will tell sooner rather than later.
Congressional approval of the Iranian agreement within 60 days is not certain as there is virtually no bipartisan support for it in Washington. Its fate rests with the moderate Democrats on the Senate foreign relations committee (the former chair, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, has already expressed misgivings).
On vital matters of international security, a bipartisan commitment to the national interest should prevail. Trust is a commodity that is still in very short supply and not just over U.S.-Iran relations.
Given the growing concern among allies about wobbly, spasmodic U.S. leadership on major global issues and threats, one hopes that serious candidates for the 2016 presidential election will break the pattern, and rely more on professional instruments of statecraft rather than grandstanding to advance shared interests and resolve disputes.