VIENNA – Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 on a promise of change, and he has now delivered, forging a historic international agreement in his image that fundamentally shifts the paradigm of power in the Middle East.
The deal sealed on Tuesday between six world powers and Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will forever define Obama’s legacy as commander-in-chief. It is the most significant arms control agreement adopted since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed between the US and the Soviet Union in 1991; the most consequential single policy action in the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; and the most dramatic reversal of US relations with a foreign nation since Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.
And like all major policy shifts, the JCPOA carries tremendous risk for the president and for his country. Obama is investing in the future of a government that has, over its 36 years in existence, defined itself in opposition to much of what America stands for.
That is what Obama’s administration reflects on when it discusses the entity that Iran has become. It is with an educated knowledge of history that Obama strode down the State Floor of the White House on Tuesday morning and announced a sweeping deal with an Islamic state.
Five consecutive US presidents have approached the Islamic Republic with a policy of containment and distrust. But Tehran says this policy reinforces its founding purpose: To resist an “arrogant” West, and particularly the United States.
And that is precisely why Obama thinks this deal, the JCPOA, is the only reasonable alternative.
He talks of the human waves of Iranians thrown at Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, of Iran’s “resistance economy” model, and of its defiance of international sanctions on its nuclear program as proof that Tehran, in the end, cannot be tamed by conventional means.
So he’ll try cooperation, instead.
“Sanctioning Iran until it capitulates makes for a powerful talking point and a pretty good political speech, but it’s not achievable outside a world of fantasy,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday at the announcement ceremony for the deal. “The fact is the international community tried that approach.”
Obama made a similar argument in his own address.
“That was the policy of the United States and others during the years 2000 and before,” Kerry continued. “And in the meantime, guess what happened? The Iranian program went from 164 centrifuges to thousands. The Iranian program grew despite the fact that the international community said, ‘No enrichment at all, none.’”
The White House says the deal is based on verification and Iranian compliance. But while technical deals are based on verifiable facts, political agreements are based on trust. And indeed, both Kerry and Obama acknowledge that “confidence building” will be an important part of the life of this deal going forward.
"It is possible to change," Obama said. "A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive."
Around the Palais Coburg in Vienna, where the agreement was reached, Iran’s press corps celebrated the news with an extraordinary sense of national pride. To them, a policy of painful resistance had finally been vindicated – even rewarded.
But they also took pride in something entirely new: The belief they were being treated by Western governments with a genuine sense of respect. That may be Obama’s ultimate strategy, entirely separate from the nuclear file.