WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Barack Obama ran for president in part on the proposition that it was time to end the United States’ wars abroad and find ways to resolve conflicts without force.
Thursday’s interim nuclear deal with Iran was the biggest achievement so far of this “open-hand” diplomacy and may have helped secure a foreign policy legacy that, for now, is mixed at best.
Apart from Afghanistan, there is no foreign policy issue he had spent more time on than Iran in his six years in office, a senior administration official said.
A comprehensive agreement with Iran, if one is reached, could boost Obama’s standing even as his ability to shape U.S. domestic policy in his final two years ebbs with Republican majorities in Congress and the approach of the 2016 election.
Even as U.S. conservatives have pilloried him for withdrawing troops from Iraq 2011 and for failing to carry out a threat to bomb Syria in 2013, Obama has stuck to his belief that diplomacy was the best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
“If Congress kills this deal … then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“The American people understand this, which is why solid majorities support a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue,” he added, a reference to the many polls that reflect the U.S. war weariness that helped elect him in 2008.
To make his case on Iran, Obama draped himself in the mantle of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who struck nuclear arms control pacts with the Soviet Union.
He also quoted President John Kennedy, who he said faced down the threat of communism saying “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
OBAMA DEEPLY VERSED IN TALKS
Aides said Obama was deeply versed in the details of the talks, speaking to his top aides regularly, including at midnight the day before the agreement was announced in Lausanne.
They said in particular he focused on making inspections and monitoring tough enough to ensure Iran does not pursue a secret nuclear weapons program.
North Korea did this by capping its plutonium program under a 1994 deal with Washington but covertly developing a uranium enrichment capability that gave it another path to a bomb.
“He has gone through in great and exhaustive detail what the nature of those inspections are,” said a senior U.S. official on condition of anonymity.
James Dobbins, a career diplomat who has served Democratic and Republican presidents and is now at the Rand Corporation research organization, said Thursday’s agreement justified Obama’s own preference for diplomacy with adversaries.
“How many agreements did we come to with the Soviet Union over the years that capped the growth of nuclear arms?” Dobbins said. “Everybody thinks Nixon going to China was a good idea.”
“If you need further validation of the principle that it’s even more important that you talk to your enemies than that you talk to your friends, this would be a good example,” he added of the Iran deal.
On major diplomatic issues, Obama’s successes have been limited. His two sustained efforts to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians ended in failure.
He faces an increasingly chaotic Middle East, where Tehran stands at the center of sectarian conflicts ranging from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. Relations with Russia are at a nadir following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Obama’s initial openness to talks with North Korea about its nuclear program led nowhere.
While the U.S. outreach to Cuba after a half century of enmity yielded plans to normalize diplomatic relations, it has yet to bear fruit in the form of reopening embassies.
The negotiations with Iran, too, are a work in progress.
The understanding reached by Tehran and six world powers after eight days of talks in Switzerland would curb Iran’s nuclear program for at least a decade.
It sets out the guidelines for a future comprehensive deal, to be struck by June 30, to allay Western fears that Iran was seeking to build an atomic bomb and in return lift economic sanctions that have crippled the Islamic Republic’s economy.
Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Iran now at the Brookings Institution think tank, said it was too early to declare victory for Obama’s diplomacy.
“Is it vindication? Not yet,” he said. “There are going to be several more very difficult grueling months of negotiations.”