If you think the United States just struck a poor nuclear deal with Iran, you’re right; but if that’s your key takeaway, you’re missing the point. Iran’s nuclear program was last on the list of the Obama administration’s priorities in talking to Tehran. The administration readily caved on Iran’s nukes because it viewed the matter only as a timely pretense for achieving other cherished aims. These were: (1) preventing an Israeli attack on Iran; (2) transforming the United States into a more forgiving, less imposing power; (3) establishing diplomacy as a great American good in itself; (4) making Iran into a great regional power; and (5), ensuring the legacies of the president and secretary of state as men of vision and peace.
The administration has always viewed Israel as an intractable troublemaker and the main catalyst for the region’s woes. An Israeli strike on Iran, especially if supported by the United States, would have been yet another display of destabilizing Israeli aggression that put Middle East peace further out of reach. Barack Obama, therefore, repeatedly warned Israel against attacking Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu complied, and for his compliance White House officials taunted him in 2014 as a “chickenshit” whose window of opportunity had closed. That window is now barred. The Iran deal states that the U.S. will train Iranians to counter any sabotage attempts on its nuclear facilities and systems. This is aimed at frustrating Israeli action.
Obama came to office promising to limit American action as well. In his standard progressive view, the United States has been too eager to throw its weight around and impose its norms on other countries without giving sufficient thought to the resentment it might sow. He ended the war in Iraq and sought to remake the United States as a humble power. “Too often the United States starts by dictating,” he told a Saudi news outlet soon after being elected. He, by contrast, would do a lot of “listening.” The Iran negotiations became Obama’s magnum opus on the theme of listening. Americans listened to Iranians dictate terms, shoot down offers, insult the United States, and threaten allies. America has been humbled indeed.
But such humility is necessary if diplomacy is to be made into a nation-defining ethos. And if we could successfully negotiate with theocratic Iran, then surely Americans would see that diplomacy could conquer all. So, for the sake of proving this abstract principle, Obama foreclosed any non-diplomatic approach to Iran before a deal was reached. As he told Tom Friedman in April, “there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable.” So declared, so demonstrated.
Like the preeminence of diplomacy, the notion of Iran’s potential as a levelheaded regional power was a treasured abstract principle Obama hoped to substantiate through the nuclear talks. Once again, first came the declaration. Last December Obama speculated on the outcome of a completed nuclear deal: “There’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.”
If Iran’s fanatical anti-Semitism called this sanguine view into question, that too could be explained. “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival,” he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.” That the United States and Iran have now come to an agreement—whatever the details—is supposed to demonstrate the soundness of that principle.
As far as legacy, what politician doesn’t want one? For Obama, a nominal nuclear deal may make him feel as if he’s earned the Nobel Prize once furnished him as election swag. John Kerry’s own efforts to earn a Nobel by brokering Middle East peace became another footnote in the story of Palestinian obstinacy. He too had something to prove.
From the administration’s standpoint, the deal was a grand slam. If it left Iran as an official nuclear power on the perpetual verge of a breakout, well, that was always the bargaining chip to get everything else. And with the United States having shown extraordinary cooperation and forgiveness, the thinking goes, even a nuclear Iran will become a less bellicose and more collegial member of the community of nations. What good the deal has already done, the administration believes, will continue to pay dividends. As is his wont, Obama is now declaring as much. But by the time his vision is upended by facts, he’ll be out of office, and we won’t have the luxury of fighting reality with abstractions.