Barack Obama came into office in 2009 having campaigned on a more realistic policy in the Middle East, including toward Iran, after George W. Bush’s crusades. Obama’s determination to reach out to Iran has finally borne fruit. Whereas some of his other Middle East policies met setbacks or suffered policy drift, in the Vienna agreement he and Secretary of State John Kerry achieved through diplomacy a reconfiguration of the Middle East as consequential as George W. Bush’s overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Obama did it through diplomacy rather than war, however, making his legacy a long-term and positive one for the region.
The agreement reached this week is a milestone in the campaign against nuclear proliferation. It attempts to close off possible technical pathways for Iran to create a nuclear weapon (something the ayatollahs have in any case steadfastly denied they wish to do). At the same time, it permits Iran the use of civilian nuclear energy for the purposes of electricity generation, a program important to the country so as to preserve its natural gas and petroleum for export and to build up its foreign currency reserves, rather than squandering these resources at home. Peaceful nuclear reactors are a guaranteed right to countries under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a right on which Iran has insisted.
Critics of the plan who discount the efficacy of inspections should remember that no country under formal International Atomic Energy Agency inspections has ever developed a nuclear weapon. Those skeptics who insisted that UN inspections of Iraq in the 1990s had failed were surprised in 2003 to discover that, in fact, they had completely closed down Saddam Hussein’s small and not very advanced nuclear labs, which he had authorized in an arms race with nuclear-armed Israel. The only alternative to a negotiated settlement of this sort, in any case, would have been a war on Iran that would have been costly and perhaps ruinous (the country is three times bigger and more than twice as populous as Iraq, and it is not as if the US economy has emerged unscathed from the latter misadventure).
President Obama first signaled his new approach to Iran in his Persian New Year’s (Now-Ruz) message in March of 2009. He called the country the Islamic Republic of Iran and declined to make a distinction between the Iranian people and their government. The Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was clearly intrigued by this initiative, but said (to translate into our idiom) the proof will be in the pudding.
The United States has a long history of aggressive intervention in Iran, mainly having to do with petroleum. It helped depose the Iranian government in 1941 and jointly occupied the country with Britain and Russia during World War II, during which it presided over a collapse of the economy and a horrible famine. It made a CIA coup in 1953 to crush a democratic movement seeking a better deal from the British on Iranian petroleum, and installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi as a pro-American dictator. In the 1960s, whenever the Shah’s oil prices seemed excessive to Washington, officials were sent out casually to threaten him with another coup unless he fell back in line. Outraged at the Shah’s increasingly onerous, seedy police state, the Iranian people made a revolution against it in 1979, blaming the United States for decades of repression, jailings, and torture of regime critics.