The centerpiece of President Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda is hanging in the balance Tuesday as negotiators struggle to reach a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama has raised the stakes on the negotiations, and if a deal fails to materialize before the March 31 deadline, it will be a blow to his legacy and criticism of the White House will be intense.
“I’m not going to presuppose failure,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Our folks are working around the clock in earnest to try and get this done.”
Obama entered the talks as part of an effort to shift the U.S. posture in the Middle East toward diplomatic engagement — and not military involvement.
That desire dates back to his first campaign, when he said he would be willing to meet with the leaders of hostile regimes such as Iran.
A deal could freeze Iran’s nuclear program for the next decade in exchange for sanctions relief for Tehran, something that could be portrayed as a major victory for Obama at a time when his foreign policy in the Middle East has come under question.
“Stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be a major accomplishment for this or any other administration,” said Robert Einhorn, a former non-proliferation adviser at the State Department under Obama.
An agreement would require the Iranian government to take unprecedented steps, including refraining from enriching uranium for military purposes and subjecting nuclear facilities to stringent inspections.
Some supporters of a nuclear agreement see it as the first step in repairing relations with Iran, which has remained a major regional power even under the yoke of international sanctions.
“There is no getting around Iran’s rise,” said Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Iran adviser at the National Security Council under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A deal would allow the U.S. to “recover its strategic position in the Middle East, which is now in free fall.”
Skeptics argue that even if Obama gets a deal, his effort will be judged a loser in the history books.
“It’s a big bet that this regime after a nuclear deal is going to change its behavior and I disagree fundamentally that it will,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation of Defense of Democracies.
He and other critics believe the Obama administration has conceded too much and that the deal will leave Iran with enough nuclear capability to develop a weapon.
A nuclear-armed Iran would have disastrous consequences for the U.S. It would enflame crises in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq — where Iranian-backed groups are involved in fighting — and it could spark Iran’s Sunni rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to develop nuclear weapons of their own as a deterrent.
Such a scenario would add ammunition to those who argue Obama misplayed the Arab Spring, chiefly by failing to act more forcefully in Syria’s civil war.
“If there is no deal, it may be better for the president’s legacy than if there is a deal at this point,” Dubowitz said.
It could be years until a potential deal can truly be judged.
Success would hinge on whether it actually prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The deal is being designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for one year, something dependent upon the deal’s safeguards.
“Over the long-term, it is essential for the administration to show that Iran is living up to its side of the deal,” said Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Perhaps the most daunting task for Obama is selling the deal to skeptics in Congress and in Israel.
The Iran nuclear talks has helped drive a wedge between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Damaged U.S.-Israeli relations could serve as an obstacle for Obama’s potential Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton.
Members of Congress have complained the administration has shut them out of the talks, a charge the White House vigorously denies.
Lawmakers in both political parties have threatened to pass legislation that would allow Congress to sign off on any Iran deal, which White House officials have said would blow up the talks.
In response, the Obama administration is making a lobbying push to persuade skeptical members of Congress and the public to back a deal, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“It is important for the administration to share all the information it has,” Einhorn said. “So far it hasn’t been as transparent as it should be. To make the best case, you should be very transparent.”
Obama has not ruled out the use of force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though he has argued his use of diplomacy is the better route.
“I'm prepared to take all options to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” the president said of Iran this month in an interview with Vice. “But the absolute best option is a diplomatic resolution.”