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On Iran, Obama's bigger challenge is with his allies

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists during a news conference in New York September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Lat
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists during a news conference in New York September 27, 2013. REUTERS/Adrees Lat

By Mark Leonard

The things that probably keep Barack Obama up at night — terrorist networks, covert nuclear programs and chemical weapons — can often be countered with off-the-peg reasoning: drones, sanctions, inspections, or even the threat of intervention. Much more difficult is working out how to stop allies from destroying what he hopes will be the signature achievement of his second term: a historic opening to Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, Obama's thorniest problems come not from his enemies, but from his friends.

With the possibility of bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Iran in Geneva, and supported by the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons in Syria, there is a tantalizing prospect that the Iranian regime could become a partner to the U.S., rather than a rival.

It is too early to know if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is able to deliver, but as diplomats gather in Geneva for U.N. talks, it is not hard to see why President Obama would invest so much hope in a deal. A former Democratic congressman who knows Obama well explained to me that, like healthcare on the domestic front, it would be a bold, game-changing initiative. And, like healthcare, an alliance with Iran eluded President Bill Clinton.

Obama recognizes that there is the danger of a full-blown regional sectarian conflict in the Middle East. If diplomacy fails with Iran, Obama could find himself remembered as the president who took the United States into two new Middle East Wars — in Iran and Syria — rather than the one who ended two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rouhani's stated goals seem straightforward: reversing the crippling sanctions in Iran to improve the economic situation and elevating his country's international standing. Javier Solana — Europe's former top diplomat who opened nuclear talks with Rouhani when Rouhani was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator — told me that Rouhani "is a rational person who you can do business with." Since coming to power, Rouhani has taken steps to change the mood. He appointed the intelligent and western-friendly Mohammad Javad Zarif to the foreign ministry, wresting control of the nuclear dossier from the country's Supreme National Security Council and handing it to Zarif's foreign ministry. Most intriguingly, he appointed Ali Shamkhani, an Iranian war hero of Arab origin, to be head of the Security Council.

In talks this week, Zarif called for a road map for a nuclear deal within a year by tying confidence measures on the nuclear program to a progressive lifting of sanctions and diplomatic hostilities. He has hinted at a willingness to restrict the amount of highly-enriched uranium in Iran and other measures to reassure the world that Iran will not be able to develop nuclear weapons. If there is progress in the talks, it would open the possibility for a normalization of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. and move toward a political solution on Syria.

But not everyone is pleased by the prospect of these historic enemies becoming friends. U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that the price for accommodation will be paid in the currency of their core interests.

As diplomats prepared for talks in Geneva, Benyamin Netanyahu headed to the Knesset and said, "it would be a historic mistake to reduce pressure on Iran now, a moment before sanctions achieve their goal." Netanyahu's most obvious leverage is over U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is strongly focused on peace between Israel and Palestine.

Washington's most attractive offer to Iran is lifting sanctions — something that would require congressional approval. Although the Israeli Labor leader, Shelly Yachimovich, mocked Netanyahu's apocalyptic language — "We survived Pharaoh, we survived 2,000 years in exile, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, we'll survive this" — it reminds us that Obama's attempts at détente with Iran are likely somewhat less resilient in a battle with Congress.

The other American ally — Saudi Arabia — has a murkier modus operandi. Rather than relying on American politics to subvert rapprochement with Iran, Riyadh will put more efforts into proxy wars on the ground, above all in Syria, to upset the nuclear deal and the idea of a negotiated political solution to the Syrian conflict. A well-placed Saudi told me of Riyadh's complete unwillingness to accept any diplomatic process involving Iran and Assad, and claimed that Saudi Arabia would be using "unlimited resources" to win the battle. As Marc Lynch argues in Foreign Policy, "the Saudis are always willing to fight Iran to the last dead American (or Syrian)."

As American domestic politics go from bad to absurd, Obama may increasingly look abroad in search of a legacy, and his frustrations could soon be transferred from Congress at home to foreign allies. As Israel and Saudi Arabia show, it is often easier to gain leverage over enemies than with countries bound by alliances and friendships. In relationships where there is an (often mistaken) assumption of mutual interests, cooperation is usually taken for granted.

At the United Nations last month, Obama talked in strikingly undiplomatic language about the growing war-weariness of the American people and of the temptation for isolationism that will come from energy independence.

"We're far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us," Obama said.

Superficially, this seemed to be a warning against Arab dictators, but reading between the lines, it may have been a warning to his closest allies: cooperate with us or we will withdraw. Obama seems set to follow the strictures of Jeremiah in the biblical lands, the weeping prophet in the Old Testament who warned: "Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan."

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