Sunday, July 26, 2015

Barack Obama's moment

Thomas Friedman, writing to the New York Times, calls it a "good bad deal". Barack Obama begs to differ. He sees it differently. Not how his critics see it. Not how those who spot out the realpolitik under it see it. The president doesn't call it a game-changer. He calls it "better than the alternative."

And so we have a deal between the United States of America and Iran. Unthinkable? Certainly. Laurels aside, it vindicates diplomacy over arms and compromise over unilateralism. For the first time, it presents a sensible deal to end the nuclear crisis, amounting to this basic principle: "lower your nuclear leverage or we'll snap back sanctions on you". In terms of diplomacy, that's simple. Keeps to the point. Not that it's a cure-all, of course.

Obama himself admits this, by the way. He admits moreover that he isn't seeking other goals in the region. "We're not interested in regime change," he tells Friedman in an interview. His government may or may not have learnt from the Arab Spring. We don't know.

What we do know is this. The deal with Iran wasn't measured (completely) in relation to its impact on the rest of the region. Israel's interests may have figured in somewhat, yes. But its stance (it wants complete removal of all nuclear activity) was sidelined. That explains why and how relations between it and the USA have soured. Why the US deal is being celebrated and not just by its allies.

Now it is true that this may be eye-wash. Soft power has never been a strong point with the United States, whether in the Middle-East or in its neighbour's backyard. Since he came to power however, Obama has shown how it can be wielded and used to achieve objective. In this sense one commentator was correct. Obama knows words. His predecessor didn't. Bush was incoherent. He isn't.

He must have heard of unintended consequences, however. That's why he must take note of certain points.

For starters, Israel isn't happy. As The Economist reports, it's begun to pivot to Asia. True enough, that pivot wasn't a result of the Iranian deal but a friendly reaction to the overtures by the continent. Both sides of the Atlantic have had second thoughts on exonerating its unilateralism since of late. India and Japan have on the other hand indicated that they are ready to take it in.

Then there's the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. The US record on the Iran-Iraq War wasn't rosy, after all. It reflected badly on it, even worse considering that its government went against the same leader it supported during that conflict. Well, it's been 10 years since Saddam Hussein was executed, but some wars never die. In this context reaching out to Shiites while preserving interests in Saudi Arabia and Iraq is key. And of course, combating ISIS would have to count somewhere too.

That's why it helps to have a leader who knows negotiation for what it is. Obama is placed perfectly here. He is not his predecessor. This works both ways, because his successor must try to emulate him. Whether that's possible (even with a Democrat succeeding him) remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the deal seems and continues to be sensible. How? Three reasons.

First of all, it doesn't just make removal of sanctions conditional upon limiting nuclear potential. Rather, it removes sanctions and hints at reinstatement should promises be broken. This isn't containment. It's not appeasement. It's basic realpolitik: take risks, safeguard policy interests, and give in to assure the other side of mutuality in the agreement. Simplicity is everything, after all.

Secondly, neither the US nor its partners have privileged what can spill over to Iran's neighbours. They've focused on the centre of the deal: a historic opportunity to enter, compromise, and agree with a theocracy that's been at loggerheads with the West for decades. This is where confession of error counts. Obama may know words, but it takes more than words to do that. That's why moderates would have cheered when he implied point-blank (to Friedman) that both the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup and the decision to aid and abet Saddam Hussein were blunders. That's something.

Thirdly, it brings together two powerhouse rivals. The US and Russia haven't exactly pointed daggers at each other, but they haven't partied all night either. Obama's assertion that Russia not only agreed but lent support to the deal indicates a bringing together of two unlikely players. Exaggerations and extrapolations can be made. They can be wild. But the fact that Russia and America were together not only helps ease tensions between the two. It also assures Iran (which sees an ally in the former) and guarantees at least conditional support.

Barack Obama probably identified the deal for what it really is. Maybe that's why he said that it's built on verification. Not trust. Yes, there's a difference. As far as US interests and soft power are concerned though, it doesn't matter. The deal makes way for trust. Trust comes through verification. Simple as that.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 25 2015