Following over thirty years of Iran’s diplomatic isolation and eighteen months of negotiations, a roadmap for concluding an agreement was reached on April 2 between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The major sticking points of guaranteeing that Iran’s nuclear program was to be used only for peaceful means and the lifting of economic sanctions by the UN, European Union and the United States were tentatively worked out in Lausanne before a final deadline at the end of June.
There was rejoicing in the streets of Iran. The sanctions have had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy. Equally as important, perhaps, is the fact that the eventual signing of a definitive agreement was seen by the young Iranian population as a positive step in integrating Iran into the international community. Its pariah status had closed numerous opportunities for a highly educated and sophisticated population that was desperate to regain its historic place in the community of nations. The chief Iranian negotiator seemed radiant during the final announcement and was greeted as a hero upon his return to Tehran. Referring to the U.S. as the “Great Satan” has been temporarily put aside.
Whereas the agreement is an obvious accomplishment for diplomacy and could turn out to be the most important foreign policy accomplishment of Barack Obama’s presidency, there are obvious sceptics who could block any final document. The most important is the United States Congress. While the agreement is not a treaty and needs no formal Congressional approval, the Congress does have a say about removing sanctions. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will have their work cut out for them to convince the Congress that this is a good deal, and not just any deal. Iran, as a member of the "Axis of Evil" has not totally disappeared.
Why might the members of Congress be opposed? The first, and rather childish answer, is that they would not like to see President Obama have any success - much as they oppose Obamacare. There is such animosity between certain members of Congress and the president that there is a knee-jerk reaction against anything he does. The president outlined three options: no action that would allow Iran to continue developing its nuclear program; bombing Iran which could start a major war in the Middle East; and negotiating a diplomatic settlement with clear verification stipulations. We will see if he can convince Congress to not only not increase sanctions, but to remove those sanctions in place. He promised that sanctions could “snap back” if Iran does not fulfil its nuclear obligations. Many Republicans trust the president as much as they trust Iran. The fans of the film “American Sniper” have loaded their political weapons and are firing at full blast at their favorite target, President Obama.
Although not directly involved in the final negotiations, Israel and Saudi Arabia have also expressed scepticism, if not outright opposition to the agreement. Israel has consistently opposed any deal. Although possessing nuclear weapons itself, Israel has always felt threatened by the possibility of Iran’s going nuclear. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral victory has increased his sense of power. The obvious tension between him and President Obama will not help in convincing the Israeli leader of the ironclad verification system to be put in place. But Israel has no formal say in the matter.
Convincing Saudi Arabia and the Arab states surrounding Iran is another matter. While they also have no formal say, they are closely aligned with the United States. As the invasion of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies has shown, growing tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite communities continues. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are anxious about the potential influence of Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and throughout the Middle East. President Obama indicated that he has invited the members of the GCC to Camp David in the spring to allay their fears. But this also will not be an easy sell.
Beyond the satisfaction of concluding a preliminary agreement lies the difficult task of finalizing the document and making sure that the necessary partners are all on board. Barack Obama announced early in his first term that reducing the risk of nuclear war was an important priority. The Lausanne roadmap is an important step in that direction. However, as with many of his priorities, there has been ferocious opposition. To win a final agreement accepted by all parties will truly test his and John Kerry’s diplomatic skills. But, after all, convincing skeptics is what diplomacy is all about.
After the opening to Cuba, this is the second attempt by President Obama to show real international diplomacy. With the Conference on Disarmament blocked for eighteen years and the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization blocked for more than a decade, this is a breath of fresh air for multilateral diplomacy.