By many accounts, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been a mess: the doomed reset with Russia, the failure to outline a position on Egypt’s upheavals and, most recently, a flip-flop on Syria that managed to expose both the administration’s failure to prepare for how to deal with an attack that it expected could happen and to then deal with that crisis in a way that did not make the U.S. a laughing stock in the eyes of many of its adversaries.
As one exasperated State Department official recently put it: “Where are the grown-ups?”
And then came Iran.
The phone call between Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, that took place on Friday afternoon as Rouhani was leaving New York was the culmination of the Iranian president’s weeklong charm offensive at the United Nations. It was undoubtedly historic: the leaders of the U.S. and Iran have had no direct contact since 1979, when the siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran ruptured relations and set the tone for more than three decades of animosity and mistrust.
The call appeared more than symbolic, coming after a one-on-one meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that was described as productive. For the whole initiative to crumble now would deal a blow to an administration that cannot, at least on the world stage, handle many more.
“There has to be a sense of confidence on both sides that this is more than simply signaling, that this is more than simply testing,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution. That means Rouhani had the backing of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who reportedly earlier prompted the president to step down from pushing for a meeting at the U.N. with Obama for fear that hardliners back home would get too upset.
But what comes next? Experts who have devoted their lives to Iran speak breathtakingly of a “breakthrough” before checking themselves: “There is always this hope that we’ll have this kind of a breakthrough,” Maloney said of the 15-minute phone call. “I say ‘breakthrough’ but — I don’t expect embassies to re-open. If this can lead to at least a working relationship, even if it’s an adversarial one, on Syria and some of the other issues of mutual concern — Iraq, Afghanistan — then we’re in a much better place.”
“The best case scenario is we have a year of incredibly difficult negotiations and end up with an inadequate and unhappy agreement and some constraints on the nuclear program and a modest improvement in Iranian access to the international system,” she said.
Iran has been pressed by sanctions for years, and additional sanctions instituted by Obama last year, targeting oil sales and financial transactions, have helped cripple the country’s economy. Now, with the prospect of a nuclear deal on the horizon, Obama raised the possibility of lifting them, speaking to reporters on Friday: “The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place.”
It all gives a cohesion to Obama’s foreign policy that has been long unseen on most everywhere else.
“There are huge incentive for both presidents to reach a deal,”said Karim Sadjadpour, the Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “Iran presents Obama one of the few tangible opportunities to leave a positive diplomatic legacy in the Middle East. And Rouhani would go down in Iranian history as the man who brought Iran back from isolation.”
But now comes the hard part. Obama will have to convince a skeptical Congress that the Iranians intend to follow through and are not simply seeking to stall action on their nuclear program so they can, in fact, develop a bomb. The secret war that Iran has been waging against the United States and its allies — first in Iraq, now in Syria, through proxies like Hezbollah — has not gone away, nor have the horrific repressions at home. Rouhani may tweet on a daily basis — but Iranians still can’t access social media without a VPN. Iran remains a country eager to spread its influence throughout its increasingly troubled region, wracked by the chaos of the backlash to the “Arab Spring” and all but bereft of U.S. influence in the wake of Obama’s deferral to Russia and Iran on the ever worsening Syrian civil war.
The phone call, announced by Obama at a press conference and by Rouhani in a series of tweets heard around the world, was a “calculated risk by two very cautious leaders,” said Yasmin Alem of the Atlantic Council. “If the Iranians were not serious in resolving the nuclear issue, they would not risk engaging at this level of direct diplomacy with the U.S.” Or, they understand, that red lines can be crossed.