Is No Nuclear Deal With Iran a Better Outcome for Obama?
"In short, Washington could manage the fallout from no agreement. And in that case, it’s more than likely that Iran would become a problem for the next administration, which, frankly, wouldn’t be such a bad outcome for this one," writes Aaron David Miller.
I still think the odds favor a deal, soon, on the Iran nuclear issue. But as negotiations have continued, and in light of Iranian demands to eliminate the U.N. arms embargo, including restrictions on its ballistic missile technology, there are reasons that Barack Obama might now feel that no deal would better serve his interests. Consider the advantages if the president were to view time as an ally, not an adversary:
Simply put, a bad deal would diminish not only Mr. Obama’s credibility on the Middle East street but also his domestic accomplishments. And his domestic record is looking up: Recent successes–including winning trade promotion authority, the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, and the president’s remarks on race in the wake of the Charleston church shootings–have boosted Mr. Obama’s approval ratings–and confidence. Indeed, psychologically, he seems to be on a presidential high. He may well be less inclined to appease the mullahs or accept a deal he can’t defend.
Tough bargaining. Critics have accused the president of being weak and vacillating in the Middle East, and some say he is too desperate for a deal with Iran. Slowing down negotiations, particularly if Tehran is making unreasonable demands, would counter these charges and toughen Mr. Obama’s image. Doing so might also signal to Iran that the president is prepared to walk away–the sine qua non in many tough negotiations. Regardless of whether it would improve the chances of a deal, it might protect the president from the consequences of a bad agreement. And more than a few Democrats would be relieved at not facing the choice of whether to sustain a presidential veto of an accord that they themselves aren’t comfortable with.
John Kerry’s deal: Yes, Mr. Obama wants an agreement with Iran. If the accord is any good, it would be a defining achievement in an otherwise grim Middle East that has produced few, if any, successes for this administration. But a deal with Iran isn’t critical to Mr. Obama’s place in history. This isn’t an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty or even a disarmament agreement; it’s an arms-control accord, and there are limits to its duration. For John Kerry, this deal is critical to his legacy as a consequential secretary of state. Don’t misunderstand: Mr. Kerry believes that such an agreement is, first and foremost, in the national interest. But there is no way he can separate his personal role in the nuclear talks from whether he–or someone else–is up for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2017, Mr. Obama will have other things to crow about; Mr. Kerry will not.
The world keeps on turning: No deal would not necessarily mean war or the end of the sanctions regime against Iran. If Iran is seen as the unreasonable party, Tehran may well suffer far more than Washington between a lack of sanctions relief and the absence of a political propaganda victory. Israel is not in a hurry to use military force, and the Iranians have no desire–at least for now–to court a military strike by Jerusalem or Washington. That, of course, could change if Iran decided to accelerate its nuclear program.
In short, Washington could manage the fallout from no agreement. And in that case, it’s more than likely that Iran would become a problem for the next administration, which, frankly, wouldn’t be such a bad outcome for this one.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.
About the Author
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more