Editor’s Note: : We’re hosting a conversation on Markaz on the Iranian nuclear talks, debating the merits of a deal, as well as the broader issues at stake for the United States and the region. This piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
As we near what may be the endgame of the current negotiations with Iran, I am reminded of the place where President Obama announced the overarching strategy that helped produce this moment: Prague. After stating his readiness to speak to Iran in a Democratic primary debate in 2007, and following that up postelection in 2009 with a series of initial statements directed to the Iranians, the president chose the Czech capital to lay out his vision of dealing with the dangers of nuclear weapons in April 2009. That included emphasizing that Iran would not be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon on his watch: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”
As a result of that 2009 speech, the president’s nuclear strategy became known as the Prague Agenda. I had the privilege to travel with President Obama back to Prague in April 2010 to witness the signing of a major accomplishment in another area under the Prague Agenda, namely the New START treaty. By the following year, April 2011, I was in Prague as U.S. ambassador. That year, and in the each year that followed, we held an annual Prague Agenda conference to assess the steps that had been taken and the challenges that lay ahead.
In the years since, there has been steady progress in each of the four main areas the president laid out on that spring day in Prague in 2009. New START was a step forward on his first objective, to reduce the risks posed by existing nuclear weapons. Another goal, preventing nuclear terror by safeguarding materials and improving safety, has since been the subject of a series of successful Nuclear Security Summits in Washington, Seoul, and The Hague.
I saw first-hand the president’s personal commitment to a third objective articulated in Prague: to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. I was, for example, present in the Oval Office in October 2011 when the president and the Czech prime minister met. President Obama advocated for the use of civil nuclear power as a part of the Czech energy mix (and also to achieve energy independence from Russia). That approach has been replicated in administration policy supporting civil nuclear energy in the United States and around the world.
Now, with the possible Iran deal, progress under the Prague Agenda’s final prong is in reach: holding to account a state which had violated its nuclear obligations under international treaties. I am not of the school that believes the president needs to secure an Iran deal to build his legacy. That was never the case; having known him for almost a quarter of a century, since we were law students together, and having worked for him for six years, first in the White House and then as ambassador, I can attest that those kinds of considerations do not enter into critical decisions like this one. Even the president’s strongest critics have to admit that legacy is, as a matter of logic, much less of a consideration after the recent breakthroughs on the Affordable Care Act and on Trade Promotion Authority.
Instead, as the comprehensive nature of the Prague Agenda itself suggests, President Obama is pursuing a deal out of principle. He is acting from his conviction that a good agreement with Iran represents another step toward making the U.S., our allies, and the world safe from nuclear terror. It is that ambition that has driven the president’s formulation and consistent pursuit of each of the four elements of the Prague Agenda, the obscure aspects just as much as the headline-making ones.
Of course, as the president himself has repeatedly emphasized, the deal must be a good one. That is why I recently joined a bipartisan group of experts convened by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in signing a statement laying out criteria for what any deal with Iran must at a minimum contain in five core areas: monitoring and verification; possible military dimensions; advanced centrifuges; sanctions relief; and consequences of violations. We also agreed on the importance of complementing any agreement with a strong deterrence policy and a comprehensive regional strategy. I have been encouraged by the warm reception for our statement from all corners, and by the strong tone struck by the American negotiators in Vienna this week. They recognize that willingness to walk away is the surest path to securing a good deal. If such a deal can be struck that meets the criteria in our bipartisan statement, that will be another stride forward under the Prague Agenda — perhaps the biggest yet.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.