Obama turns to Iran for an elusive second-term victory

With his domestic agenda stalled, President Obama on Tuesday turned to foreign policy to try to secure an elusive second-term win.

Obama has directed Secretary of State John Kerry to go after a nuclear deal with Iran, negotiations that will carry risks but potential rewards for a president nine months into his second term.

Experts on Tuesday promised Iran would be a difficult negotiating partner, and lawmakers from both parties have warned Obama that the softer rhetoric from Iran’s new president could be a trap.

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Yet Obama might believe he has a better chance at securing a legacy-defining breakthrough on the international stage, even if it means trusting new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“Ironically, he might feel he has more capacity to sway events internationally,” said Princeton University Professor Julian Zelizer.

Zelizer added that three of the last four two-term U.S. presidents made similar moves in their second terms as they dealt with congressional parties led by their political opposition.

All three secured notable victories, he noted. 

“Reagan did this with the Soviet Union and negotiations with Gorbachev, Bill Clinton did this with Kosovo and Bosnia, Nixon did it with his policy of détente until Watergate,” Zelizer said.

The White House for months has been stifled by congressional Republicans who at every turn have opposed Obama’s agenda on gun control, immigration and the budget.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has rejected new talks with Obama on the debt ceiling, and the president has refused to negotiate on the issue weeks before a deadline set by the Treasury Department.

White House efforts to negotiate with centrist Senate Republicans on a budget deal have also broken down.

The White House and congressional Republicans even seem incapable of agreeing to fund the government for the next 10 weeks.

A foreign policy win could help Obama regain momentum on his domestic agenda.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week showed the president’s approval rating on foreign policy at 47 percent — one of the lowest points of his presidency. That has created a drag on the president’s overall approval rating, which is at its lowest point in more than a year.

Foreign policy experts cautioned that securing a victory won’t be easy.

Critics say that Iran could be flirting with talks with the U.S. as a stalling tactic.

So might Syria’s government, where President Bashar Assad has promised to give up his chemical weapons. Obama hopes to secure another foreign policy victory there.

Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, called progress in talks there “qualitatively different from anything we’ve ever seen before.” But, she cautioned, that meant “not a probability, but a possibility of a deal.” 

Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, said he “wouldn’t hold my breath” on a deal with Iran that enabled full international monitoring of its weapons programs and restored diplomatic ties.

“But it would be a historic event — one of the great diplomatic coups of recent memory,” he said.