Iranian nuclear deal and US foreign policy schizophrenia

The deal with Iran marks the single most important US foreign policy success in decades.

The historic deal with Iran is a much needed win for the Obama presidency [EPA]

At least the Israelis can appreciate the strategy. Having faced years of stalemate on the most important foreign policy issue faced by the government, secret back-channel negotiations authorised by the Obama administration succeeded in producing enough agreement on core sticking points to launch official negotiations towards an interim agreement.

The question is, in the just announced deal between Iran and the major world powers to suspend much of its nuclear programme, will the agreements follow the same path as the Oslo peace process – with one side using the interim period to strengthen the very processes the agreement was meant to stop until a fait accompli is produced? Or will the main parties honour the spirit of the accord and move towards a full implementation that can resolve all outstanding issues and produce a normal relationship with each other and the international community.

Given Israel’s actions since the signing of the first Oslo-era agreements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has good reason to suspect Iranian intentions during any interim period. Not to mention North Korea’s use of years of negotiations to continue its ultimately successful nuclear weapons programme. But for the United States there can be little doubt that the agreement with Iran marks the single most important foreign policy success not just of Barack Obama’s presidency, but if it is followed through, of the last generation.



  Shifting the focus
  Questions beyond the deal
  Iran’s nuclear history
  Timeline of Iran’s nuclear programme
   Mixed reactions

Bilateral mistrust

Iran has been the most important regional adversary to the US and its primary Middle Eastern allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for over three decades. The US has fought two wars with Iraq, and has been fighting in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan for a dozen years. But it is Iran, with its huge petroleum reserves, closeness to China, incredibly sophisticated intelligence network, and support for Syria, Hezbollah and Shia movements across the region, that challenge the power and prestige, and potentially, the stability of the US’ so-called Sunni Gulf allies, constituting one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the last half dozen US presidents.

If the US has good reasons to suspect Iranian intentions, Iranians have far greater reasons to fear and suspect US intentions, given a history that includes US-designed coups, support for a brutal monarchy and its dreaded security state, and backing Saddam Hussein, including logistical support for his use of chemical weapons, during the Iran-Iraq war. There is also the on-going US military commitment to full spectrum dominance over all adversaries and competitors, which would be made easier if an Iranian nuclear weapons’ capability were no longer a strategic consideration.


Key terms of the deal
What Iran must do
  • Halt enrichment above five per cent.
  • Dismantle technical connections required to enrich above five per cent.
  • Not install additional centrifuges of any type.
  • Not install or use any next-generation centrifuges to enrich uranium.
  • Not construct additional enrichment facilities.
  • Not commission or fuel Arak reactor.
  • Provide daily access to IAEA inspectors at Natanz and Fordow sites.
  • Provide IAEA access to centrifuge assembly, production and storage facilities.
  • Provide design information for Arak reactor.
What world powers offer in return
  • Not impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months
  • Suspend some sanctions on gold and precious metals, cars and petrochemical exports, potentially providing Iran approximately $1.5 billion. 
  • Allow purchases of Iranian oil at their current levels.
  • License safety-related repairs and inspections inside Iran for certain Iranian airlines.
  • Allow $400m in governmental tuition assistance to be transferred from restricted funds directly to educational institutions in third countries to defray the tuition costs of Iranian students.

At the same time, President Obama cannot point to a single foreign policy success in the Arab/Muslim world during his tenure in office. He was late and then anaemic – to put it charitably – in his support for the pro-democracy uprisings across the region. He has done nothing to push forward a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and other major recipients of US aid and support, challenge US policies with impunity. Post-US Iraq is teetering on the brink of large scale violence. Afghanistan is neither stable nor a reliable security partner, and the on-going use of drones by the US has further alienated most of the region, while offering no demonstrable improvement to US security objectives. And Syria has descended into the worst humanitarian disaster of the post-Cold War era.

It’s hard to imagine it having been otherwise. In most of these areas the status quo recounted above, have so many powerful vested interests that pursuing policies which actually support democracy, human rights and peace has little chance of success. In Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and other major allies, the links between authoritarian regimes and allies in the US military, security, economic and foreign policy establishment, are simply too deep for the president to challenge without investing far more political capital than Obama has shown the determination to expend.

Maintaining status quo

In contrast – and tellingly – the President has shown little compunction about pursuing negative policies, such as continuing drone strikes, the massive global surveillance programme disclosed by Edward Snowden, precisely because they are powerful instruments for pursuing the long-term strategy of the military-security complex of managed regional conflicts that ensure the perpetuation of the strategic, economic and political status quo.

It’s not for nothing that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to his old friend Egyptian General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, every day since former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal. Even more relevant is Secretary of State John Kerry’s November 20th prepared remarks about Egypt, only three days before the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran:

“Those kids in Tahrir Square, they were not motivated by any religion or ideology. They were motivated by what they saw through this interconnected world, and they wanted a piece of the opportunity and a chance to get an education and have a job and have a future, and not have a corrupt government that deprived them of all of that and more… And then it got stolen by the one single-most organised entity in the state, which was the Brotherhood.”

It’s clear that Kerry felt it necessary to shore up the US position with one of its major “partners”, and through it, with Saudi Arabia and Israel, before pushing through with a deal that was sure to anger both. In supporting the continued dominance of the military in Egypt, Kerry also laid the gauntlet down for continued US global dominance:

“Nobody else in the world at this moment – and I don’t say this with any arrogance; I say it with pride and I say it as a matter of reality – no one else comes close to what we are able to do to keep the peace or what we do to try to manage and tampen down old animosities and keep them at bay.”

Egypt a pawn

Reaching a long-term agreement with Iran that eliminates its potential nuclear weapons programme, would certainly help tampen down the long-term US-Iranian antagonisms, and lessen the chance of a potentially calamitous regional nuclear arms race as well. Indeed, it would rightly be considered a foreign policy triumph of the highest magnitude for an administration that desperately needs good news. But it will antagonise a lot of vested interests across the region and at home, whose power and policies are premised on the on-going enmity between Iran and the US and its Sunni allies.

What seems clear from Kerry’s comments on Egypt is that the Obama Administration has determined that one way to square accounts with its old friends as it pursues a foreign policy breakthrough with Iran, will be to engage in an even more blatant whitewashing of the history, motivations and consequences of the pro-democracy protests – which in fact began in Iran in 2009 – and say nothing as their allies (re)tighten their grips on their societies.

That such policies hew to the classic rationality of Realpolitik will give little comfort to the citizens across the region who should expect even less US support for real democratic reforms in the near future.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.