The broad outline for a negotiated deal over Iran’s nuclear program that would satisfy essential U.S. and Iranian national interests is fairly clear. Iran would agree to limit its nuclear enrichment activities (to levels between 3-5 % seems to be a consensus figure) while allowing for rigorous international inspections designed to minimize prospects for the diversion of civilian nuclear materials and technologies to military programs. In return for these Iranian concessions, U.S. and other international officials would agree to meaningfully ease and eventually lift (assuming continued Iranian cooperation) economic and financial sanctions.
However, as rumors circulated earlier this week about the potential for a successful negotiated deal along these lines, two primary obstacles have re-emerged. One of the main obstacles on the international stage is Israel. Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has adopted an exceptionally tough position regarding international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program insisting that Iran “stop all enrichment, ship all its nuclear material outside the country, and dismantle its nuclear installation at Qom.” Of course, each of these conditions would be a deal-breaker from the standpoint of Iranian officials. After all, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Tehran, unlike Israel, is a signatory) guarantees states the right to develop civilian nuclear programs which presumably include the ability to produce nuclear fuel. Israel, as a sovereign state, is free to pursue and advocate policies as it sees fit. President Obama, however, is sworn to defend the interests of the American people and should be solely focused on taking those actions that advance American national interests. No other country should divert the President from that single focus.
It is also becoming conventional wisdom that “resistance in the US Congress to any kind of compromise with Iran would be the highest hurdle President Obama faced in negotiating a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.” Indeed various resolutions in the House and Senate have been drafted recently with bipartisan support that variously rule out containment as a policy option for the President, seek to impose ever more harsh sanctions on Iran, and demand a complete cessation to all Iranian enrichment activities. These resolutions, although non-binding, seek to constrain the President’s options, to raise the political costs to the President of extending meaningful concessions to Iran, and thereby effectively undermine the very prospects for a negotiated resolution. Unfortunately, the President himself has prematurely acquiesced to at least some of these pressures to include foreswearing containment as a policy option.
A negotiated deal with Iran establishing limits on its production of nuclear fuel and ensuring effective international inspections would prevent another costly regional military confrontation and serve as perhaps the best guarantee against a nuclear-armed Iran. While not without its risks, President Obama should seize this strategic opportunity to secure American interests in the Gulf and reverse decades of antagonistic relations with an important (if unsavory) regional actor.
President Nixon confronted an analogous situation with China in the early 1970’s when the U.S. was strategically exhausted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He similarly confronted strong domestic political opposition to any compromise with this staunchly communist nation. Nonetheless, backed by the cold strategic calculus of Henry Kissinger, President Nixon took the political risks required to reach an effective accommodation with China that ultimately set the stage for America’s victory in the Cold War and its subsequent emergence as the world’s dominant political, economic, and military superpower.
Nixon’s example provides historical precedent for President Obama to take the bold actions required to secure American strategic interests as we emerge from more than a decade of costly war(s) in the Middle East. But the window for successful negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program is likely to be a fleeting opportunity. President Obama will have to demonstrate the equivalent of both Kissinger’s strategic vision and Nixon’s willingness to assume domestic political risks for the purpose of securing America’s longer-term regional and global interests.
The author is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.