LONDON – In 1988, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “drank the cup of poison” and agreed to a U.N.-mediated ceasefire with Saddam Hussein to end the devastating Iran-Iraq war.
For Iran’s leader, whose country suffered nearly a million deaths at the hands of the enemy, with countless more wounded, the bitterness can only be imagined, but it must have seemed better than continuing to fight.
Now President Barack Obama and the United States may have to drink their own cup of poison, and decide whether to settle with Iran on the nuclear issue and sanctions because it is better than watching the Middle East continuing to descend into chaos. Put bluntly, the U.S. is battling on too many fronts and not winning on any of them at the moment.
Syria has been lost to Islamist radicals and the government of Bashar Assad. Libya is well on the way to becoming a failed state. Large parts of Iraq have been overrun by insurgents. U.S. policy across the Mideast is a shambles. Elsewhere, the security situation in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa is deteriorating. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and East Africa remain violent and unstable, and continue to harbor large numbers of anti-American fighters. The U.S. is locked in a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and with China over the East and South China seas.
Washington is not without allies in Europe and Asia, but its foreign policy and policymakers appear dangerously overstretched by trying to confront so many adversaries at the same time. In this context, the Obama administration needs to improve relations with at least some of its adversaries to concentrate on winning the conflicts that really matter. The current round of nuclear negotiations provides an opportunity to ease tensions with Iran and concentrate on establishing security in Iraq and Syria — as well as trying to tackle the threat of insurgency across Afghanistan, Yemen, East and North Africa.
Concluding any deal with Iran will be exceptionally bitter for any U.S. president. Enmity between the two countries reaches back far beyond the nuclear issue to the hostage crisis in 1979 and the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
Israel wants a tough line against a country it sees as an existential threat and can be expected to push for the toughest deal possible even at the risk of derailing the negotiations. Other U.S. allies in the region are also wary.
No president can afford to appear weak for his audience at home or abroad. The Iranian hostage crisis helped destroy the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Presidents must be seen to deal from a position of strength, something Richard Nixon managed in starting to normalize relations with China in the 1970s. The same could not be said for any pact between the Obama administration and Iran. Any deal the administration tries to reach is likely to draw intense criticism from Congress and sections of the foreign policy community in Washington, as well as conservative talk shows.
But doing a deal now or fairly soon might still be the least worst option. No realistically available deal will satisfy everyone (diplomacy never results in everyone getting everything they want).
The outlines have been obvious for some time. It will almost certainly leave Iran with some domestic capability of enriching uranium to reactor grade and with its own nuclear power and research plants. But the aim is to limit the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges to ensure a breakout period is pushed back to a year or more, secure strict checks on the enrichment program to detect any cheating or move to produce weapons-grade material quickly, and severely restrict the production of plutonium.
Any deal will come with intrusive monitoring and some accounting for past nuclear activities. The Obama administration appears to have accepted that this would be the outline of any eventual deal when it agreed to negotiations last year. Iran, too, has shown some flexibility, confirming on Thursday that it is redesigning its planned research reactor at Arak to minimize the production of plutonium.
Recent leaks from the previously leak-free talks suggest the two sides are still divided over the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to keep, but that difference should be bridgeable if the parties have the will to do a deal.
Set against the disadvantages and questions surrounding any deal, there are a number of distinct advantages for the administration and the U.S. Shiite Iran is no friend of the Sunni militants sweeping through Iraq, intent on setting up a sectarian state across northern Iraq and neighboring parts of Syria.
Iran could play a vital role in helping stabilize Iraq (or destabilize it if Tehran fails to reach an acceptable agreement with the U.S.). There may never be a better moment to do a deal. The sanctions regime that the U.S. carefully constructed may have pushed Iran into talking but it appears to be fraying. Iran’s oil and condensate exports have been rising. Russia and China, on which enforcement depends, are now locked in their disputes with the U.S. Even Iran’s Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have signaled they want to improve links with Tehran.
With world attention divided between the chaotic scenes in Syria-Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. will not easily be able to mobilize a tough new round of sanctions if the talks break down in failure.
Given that Syria, Libya and Iraq appear to be disintegrating, Iran is no longer top of the security agenda. The world looks rather different today than it did in the summer and autumn of 2013, when sanctions were at their height and the negotiations began.
For the most optimistic observers, the goal of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran has always been a comprehensive deal that would address all the issues between the two nations. That appears unlikely. But there is plenty of scope for both countries to take some cautious first steps and build on the rapprochement that has been evident over the last year. There are plenty of ways to structure an “interim” deal and make it the start of a gradual, long-term process of confidence building and gradual normalization.
The Obama administration appears to understand it cannot fight simultaneously on so many fronts. There already appears to be an attempt under way to de-escalate tensions with Russia following Ukraine’s presidential election.
As the administration contemplates which adversaries to confront and which to conciliate, it must make a choice. Is the undeclared conflict with Iran still a core one for the U.S., or should it yield to other concerns?
John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own