Why Obama Shouldn’t Tout Iran As Proof of Multilateral Muscle

In today’s widely anticipated speech at the U.S. Military Academy, President Barack Obama outlined his vision of a multilateralist American foreign policy and trumpeted the interim nuclear accord inked between Iran and six world powers in November as evidence of its efficacy. Referring to the diplomacy that generated the deal, Obama proclaimed that “this is American leadership. This is American strength.”

My read of the speech inevitably focused on the aspects that dealt with Iran. For analysis of the overarching messages of the President’s speech, I’d encourage a look at commentary by my colleagues, including Brookings Foreign Policy Fellow Thomas Wright, who offered his assessment on the speech’s disappointments here, Foreign Policy Senior Fellow Robert Kagan who challenged Obama’s defense of his record in an essay published recently in The New Republic, and William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Brookings’ Governance Studies Program, who discussed the questions the President failed to address here.

On Iran, I believe that Obama runs several risks in exalting the Iran accord as the epitome of his multilateralist foreign policy, specifically:

  1. First, he is idealizing an exception that proves the rule: international cooperation on challenges as complex and contested as Iran has unfortunately proven rare and hard-fought, as underscored by even the most cursory understanding of the past 35 years of U.S. policy toward Tehran. 
  2. In addition, his near-preemptive declaration of victory on the Iran nuclear issue may yet come back to haunt him, if negotiators continue to run into difficulties in bridging the wide divide between Tehran and the international community on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s comments on Iran in his West Point speech today sounded a more upbeat note than the reports of frustration that emerged from the crucial round of nuclear talks that took place earlier this month in Vienna. And they were decidedly more optimistic than the odds of not more than 50 percent of reaching an accord that he offered at the Saban Forum in December 2013.

“Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully.”

“The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.”

The president is justifiably proud of the achievements of his efforts on Iran, which include a series of developments unprecedented in the history of the American-Iranian relationship since 1979: the first direct bilateral exchange between the two leaderships and the first ministerial-level negotiations in 35 years; and the first meaningful curbs on Iran’s dogged expansion of its nuclear program in more than a decade. There is no doubt that Washington’s investment in an unlikely partnership between three European states as well as China and Russia has facilitated these feats and brought the world considerably closer to a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

However, in lionizing the success of his cooperative approach, Obama fails to acknowledge the long history of failure in generating international support for U.S. objectives on Iran, and the rather unusual context that cumulatively changed the stakes for the other key actors. This context includes dramatic changes in energy markets that made it possible to persuade Europe and Asia to support punitive measures against a major oil supplier. Domestic developments within Iran also proved to be uniquely helpful in stiffening the spine of U.S. allies on Iran in unparalleled fashion. Without ample global oil supplies, protests over Iran’s 2009 presidential elections and subsequent repression, or the presence of a hate-mongering and apparently unhinged Iranian president, Obama might have found himself equally incapacitated on non-military solutions for Iran’s challenges as each of his predecessors.

To put it simply, multilateralism on Iran has been hard-won, narrowly construed, and to date only briefly maintained. It should not be taken lightly, nor should it be presumed to be the natural state of international relations dealing with troublesome Middle Eastern states. If multilateralism worked so well, the P5+1, or its equivalent, would already have mobilized to address other urgent challenges to peace and security —  say, for example, Syria, where Obama has confronted the same clash of interests and priorities that characterized much of the post-revolutionary experience with diplomacy toward Tehran. And on Syria, he has demonstrated the same absence of political will that characterized all of America’s allies as well as its adversaries on Iran until relatively recently. These same factors enabled Iran’s profound challenges to the regional order and international security to persist and metastasize.

Obama’s administration saw the tide turn, thanks to a unique confluence of circumstances: technological breakthroughs that enabled the rise of unconventional oil and gas production, combined with Iran’s eight-year regression into broad-based head bashing and Holocaust denial. This environment proved fertile ground for inducing wide international compliance with an innovative set of financial restrictions on Iran, pioneered by Obama’s predecessor. The result was a precipitous economic crisis in Iran and, in turn, the embrace of more moderate leadership and newfound willingness to compromise on the nuclear program.

And even still, it may not be enough. Multilateralism may have succeeded in coercing Tehran to consider draconian restrictions on its nuclear ambitions, but it has not yet succeeded in transforming the Islamic Republic into a responsible state actor, either on the regional stage or toward its own population. The modest progress to date on the nuclear issue remains too tentative and subject to reversal to serve as the anchor for an American strategic doctrine. Another American president declared “mission accomplished” too quickly on a major Middle Eastern initiative; it is hardly inconceivable that the tortuous diplomacy ahead on Iran will produce similar unhappy surprises for Obama.