American presidents have a habit of blundering big time on Iran. The worst was Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1953 went along with a CIA plan to overthrow a democratically elected government and install our man the Shah — leading to six decades of Iranian resentment toward America that hurts us to this day.
Then there was Jimmy Carter, who, on New Year's Eve 1977 in Tehran, called Iran "an island of stability." Toasting the Shah, Carter noted "the respect and admiration and love your people give to you." The Shah was overthrown a year later by Islamic hardliners.
So what should we make of President Obama's weekend announcement that the U.S. and five other global powers have cut a deal with Tehran to slow its nuclear program? It's either a historic breakthrough, or, in the words of Israel's wary Benjamin Netanyahu, a "historic mistake."
Aside from the fact that Israeli investors have pushed that country's stock market higher in the two trading days since the deal was announced, there's little evidence that Netanyahu's alarm has widespread support. If the deal were perceived as increasing the chance of war, it's hardly likely that the market would be up.
"Israeli investors see a lower risk of conflict despite what politicians have to say. An agreement is reducing the odds of a military conflict," Roni Biron, an analyst at UBS Israel, tells Reuters. "Investors are reading ... that this is a positive."
An easing of Mideast tensions is also likely to mean lower oil prices. U.S. war planners have long assumed that a war with Iran would threaten the passage of crude through the world's most vital transit point, the Straight of Hormuz. Iran has threatened in the past to shut it down; the U.S. Navy has vowed to keep it open.
But let's not equate short-term economic gain with sound policy. The deal with Iran raises as many questions as it answers. Here's the most important one: Has Iran really had a change of heart about its nuclear program — or is it simply looking to get out from under U.S.-led sanctions that have crushed its economy?
If it's only the latter, then we've been snookered. That's why "the burden is on Iran," President Obama noted on Saturday night, "to prove to the world that its nuclear program will be exclusively for peaceful purposes."
It's this caution behind America's (and Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China and the European Union's) decision to keep the toughest sanctions in place while tossing Tehran a bone: It increases Iran's access to money frozen in Western banks and allows more trading oil and gold, both of which Tehran has been desperate to sell to raise cash.
U.S. hardliners (this includes some Democrats, by the way) ask, legitimately, what we are getting in return for this generosity. Well, Iran is making a variety of concessions, too many to list here, but here are the big ones:
- Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond the level needed to produce electricity — and will dismantle the technical conditions needed to enrich beyond this level.
- What about uranium that has already been enriched beyond levels needed to generate electricity? Iran agrees to "neutralize" these stockpiles.
- Western inspectors will have daily access to Iranian nuclear sites at Natanz and Fordow. They'll review daily footage from surveillance cameras to ensure that the Iranians aren't cheating.
But it's what the Iranians aren't doing in this agreement that has conservatives up in arms. Specifically, Iran gets to keep the 19,000 centrifuges (machines that enrich uranium), including 3,000 advanced ones — none will be dismantled. As long as Iran still has them, they're still a threat.
But that's why, as Obama says, the burden of proof is on the Iranians. The broader, deeper deal that the U.S. and other powers hope to layer on top of this deal will address the existence of the centrifuges themselves. One step at a time. The current deal is a confidence-building measure for both sides. Remember: They don't trust us, either.
Conservatives also scoff at Obama's claim that if things don't work out over the next six months, that we learn that Tehran is double-dealing, then "we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure." That's impossible they say. Oh? Then how did these back-breaking sanctions get imposed in the first place?
In 1971, Richard Nixon, whose career was built on hardline anti-communism, stunned the world by saying he would travel to China and talk with Mao. Conservatives were outraged. For a quarter century, Washington and Peking (now called Beijing) had no relations, didn't talk to one another, didn't trust one another, and were bitter enemies. Nixon, thinking on a higher level and looking to the future, knew better.
There is a similar "Nixon goes to China" dynamic now with Obama and Iran. Our estrangement with Tehran has gone on far longer than it did with China. We don't trust them, they don't trust us. Neither side is satisfied. Why can't we do better? "I have a profound responsibility to try to resolve our differences peacefully, rather than rush towards conflict," Obama said on Saturday night. "We have a real opportunity to achieve a comprehensive, peaceful settlement, and I believe we must test it."
Like Nixon, perhaps President Obama is simply thinking on a higher level. Let's see where this goes and then re-evaluate in six months.