President Obama’s preoccupation with a nuclear deal with Iran has perplexed observers and allies alike. It’s not just the latest push back from former Obama advisors raising difficult questions about the nature of the proposed deal. The current, seemingly conciliatory, conversation with Iran has deeply upset U.S. allies, including both Israel and Saudi Arabia, not a pair often united. At the same time, the administration has been accused of not giving their due to other pressing foreign policy crises, such as ISIS, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. Given the costs he appears willing to accept it is worth asking: Why is Iran so important to Obama?

To understand the place of Iran in Obama’s worldview it is necessary to examine how and when his worldview was formed in the first place. Political scientist and presidential scholar James Davis Barber wrote in his classic work The Presidential Character that a president’s worldview is formed in adolescence. Barber said: “a man’s world view affects what he pays attention to.” A young Jack Kennedy’s introduction to world affairs accompanying his diplomat father resulted in his well-regarded book Why England Slept and saw his steadfast refusal to do likewise when the U.S.S.R. moved to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. If Iran is now playing a similar role as an outsized object of current presidential attention, how did it achieve such a status for Obama?

Was Iran significant at the point in Obama’s life when his worldview gelled? A look at his history shows that it clearly was. Born in 1961, Obama turned 18 on August 4, 1979. When he was undergoing a political awakening, the Iranian revolution was the biggest foreign policy story: the pro-American Shah fled Iran in January 1979 and the anti-Western and anti-American Islamic Republic was created in April. Just after Obama turned eighteen, the 444 day hostage crisis began. The timing of the Iranian Revolution was perfect to impact a young person’s developing worldview.


The events in Iran did not appear to young Obama in a vacuum, but fit into a framework influenced by those with whom he shared his political discussions. Most progressive and left-leaning academics and activists saw the Ayatollah’s victory as a success against colonialism (although many early supporters lost their enthusiasm as the new government became increasingly extreme). In his high school years, Obama’s mentor was hard-left activist Frank Marshall Davis, a strong supporter of anticolonial movements. At Occidental College, Obama surrounded himself with people from the more radical political left. As Obama wrote in his autobiographical Dreams from My Father, “at night in the dorm, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.” The intellectual environment of his late teens would give Obama a framework from which to see the Iranian Revolution as favorable. Obama’s later writings about anti-Western themes garnered from his experiences visiting Kenya reinforce this political framework at the core period of the arrival of Obama’s worldview.

Barber wrote that adolescence was the time of “thought about the way the world works and how one might work in it, about what people are like and how one might be like then or not.” In Dreams of My Father, Obama specifically reflects on meeting an Iranian in the library: “Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah? How could we judge other men until we had stood in their shoes?” Obama was able to see himself in the Iranian’s shoes, and was unwilling to pass judgment. We see this reflected in his thinking in the current Iranian crisis. Should the leaders of the Iranian regime be judged for their human rights violations or support of terrorism? Obama has consistently stated that those factors are not relevant in his nuclear negotiations.

While there is wide disagreement on his level of success, Obama’s political career does appear driven by some need to heal the world. Given the looming influence of Iran in his adolescence at the critical point in the development of his political worldview, it appears that “fixing” the relationship between the United States and Iran is a core objective Obama feels compelled to accomplish. Unfortunately for Obama, allies and enemies alike don’t seem to agree on what should be given up in return for his vision.

Schubert is a Political Science professor at the City College of San Francisco. He is the lead author of The Irony of Democracy.