This Deal Won’t Seal Itself

Why Obama has to lean in to the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Considering how much time and effort the United States spends spying on France, the last thing Secretary of State John Kerry should have expected was to be blindsided (as he allegedly was) by his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in Geneva late last week. Surely, Kerry should have had an inkling that the French foreign minister and his boss, French President François Hollande, who is perhaps America's most dependable ally in Europe at the moment, thought the deal to which the West and the Iranians very nearly agreed was a "fool's game."

Rest assured however, there are several reasons this apparent screwup will not result in a major investigation as to what "went wrong." The most important of these reasons is that Secretary Kerry and his colleagues in the Obama White House were on some level relieved to have the clock stopped on the negotiations. One senior administration official acknowledged that late last week as it became clear that growing political opposition to the pending deal both domestically and from allies overseas demanded attention unless it produced a backlash that could have scuttled the agreement. In this official's words, "we were saved by the bell" as the parties agreed to delay further talks until Nov. 20. 

There are, of course, other reasons why this apparent breakdown between the United States and the ally with whom we have been working very closely on the P5+1 negotiating process for years, will not be overly scrutinized. One is that while in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Secretary Kerry asserted that it was not the French who undid the talks but the Iranians. He explained there was general agreement on terms but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team "couldn't take it at that particular moment, they weren't able to accept that particular thing." 

Zarif for his part took to Twitter to suggest that "half of the U.S. draft" was "gutted" on Thursday night and not by Iran. He accused Kerry of spinning the breakdown and warned such diplomatic maneuvering could "further erode confidence."

In addition to the U.S.-Iranian "he said-he said" debate, there is also the whispered belief among some -- in both the Middle East and in Washington, acknowledged by at least one person with whom I spoke inside the administration -- that the last minute changes in language and the subsequent "rift" between the United States and France was too politically convenient. Both Paris and Washington were starting to feel the heat from allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and though France feared an economic squeeze on the big deals it has pending with the Saudis, the Americans could see organized opposition forming on Capitol Hill. The concern was that this opposition would not only result in the rejection of any deal reached with Iran but may even compromise a new push for tougher sanctions even as the administration was negotiating dialing them back. Such a rejection to the initiative would be absolutely devastating to the president, creating echoes of his failed effort to get Congressional support for his proposed very limited intervention in Syria to degrade their chemical weapons stores.

In other words, it doesn't really matter who threw the monkey wrench. There was work to be done on this deal both in terms of strengthening its terms but also in garnering the necessary support before signatures were actually set to paper. Even given the Geneva agreement's goal of producing a temporary freeze in Iran's nuclear program while a more permanent deal could be struck, legitimate questions linger over whether the near-term deal could achieve that goal if it did not effectively freeze enrichment efforts and shut down work at an Iranian reactor capable of producing plutonium. Further, the Obama team still has a great deal of work to do -- some of which is being done this week by Secretary Kerry and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman as they meet with allies in the Middle East -- building support for the deal. This will be tough to do on Capitol Hill and in Saudi Arabia given that at, the moment, both environments seethe with distrust for President Obama. 

No, even the Iranians should be happy with the delay... and not just for the cynical reason that any delay buys them the time they want and need to advance their nuclear weapons program. They also very much want sanctions relief, and to get it, they need the deal to win support from the U.S. Congress. Given the efforts of multiple forces to block the deal, this will mean the Obama administration and the president himself will have to systematically engage opponents in a way they seldom do on anything. Winning support on Capitol Hill and with the American people for such a deal is potentially the president's next big domestic political test. Failure on this after the failure to win support for his Syria efforts, the blowback from the NSA scandal, and his unsteady and confusing Egypt policies would be a big setback for the president during his second term, a period in which chief executives often turn to foreign policy to shape their legacies.

Of central concern to those domestic and international skeptics and opponents of any kind of rapprochement with Iran will be how the administration will ensure any deal is being adhered to and whether they have the resolve to punish Iran for any missteps or misrepresentations. If the President and his team can make a compelling case that they do, and then such a deal is certainly a risk worth taking. However, if the deal is seen as a dodge, as a way to avoid testing the president's resolve to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or even as a way to simply punt the hard questions associated with Iranian nukes to the next Oval Office occupant, then few will or should support what would amount to simply papering over one of the Middle East's great problems.

In short, the most critical component of this deal is not the words drafted by diplomats but what lies in the heart of the Iranians and the president of the United States. If Iran reverses past patterns and actually complies, the deal could be part of a game-changing reduction of tension that all in the region should welcome. But because that is a change without precedent and one that goes against the grain of decades' worth of Iranian behavior, as well as the character and commitment of the president of the United States, it is even more important to its success. If the Iranians believe President Obama is resolved to enforce it swiftly and decisively, it may work. If they think he will be reluctant to take tough enforcement measures, if they think he can be played -- either because he wants the legacy of an apparently successful deal or because he simply is loath to run the risk of costly, dangerous military action against Iran -- then history suggests they will play him (much as past U.S. leaders have been played in other such "deals" as was the case with North Korea).

One more caveat however, has gotten too little attention during the recent debate about these negotiations. Even if an agreement is ultimately successfully structured, implemented, and enforced, solving the Iranian nuclear problem does not resolve the Iran problem for the entire region or for the United States and its allies. But it would be a great step forward. That is not to be minimized.

No one should want a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or allow for such a volatile region (or the world) to be poised on the precipice of the catastrophe of nuclear war or nuclear terrorism. Though Iran has, to date, never been a nuclear power, it has caused plenty of problems nonetheless. It remains the world's leading state sponsor of terror. It seeks to be a regional hegemon with clients at work at its behest in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. It can cause havoc in global oil markets via the use of conventional weapons or even just sabre-rattling that might jeopardize shipping routes. No proposed deal addresses these threats or those that may emerge elsewhere (as in Western Afghanistan, for example). 

A nuclear deal with Iran is as desirable as it is laden with concerns. For the Iranians, should they ultimately seek nuclear weapons, a weak deal or no deal or a deal that simply gives them relief from sanctions for a while may be seen as a success. For the world's major powers and Iran's neighbors it will require not only a stunning about-face from Tehran but it will also require real vigilance, strength, and the willingness to undertake risky and dangerous enforcement measures for years to come to ensure its success. But much more is required. The United States must work with its allies in the region and around the world to counterbalance Iran's less than constructive ambitions and initiatives throughout the Middle East and demonstrate to them that the benefits they derive from the meddling are too low and the costs too great. That means we must maintain and develop our critical alliances in the Gulf and with Israel; and as we have seen of late, that may be tougher to do in light of our policy errors and hesitations in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Still we must also continue to hope for and support internal changes in Iran. That is a trickier business, but in the end, that is where all these efforts will succeed or fail. Only with real reform in Iran, real pluralism, and a government genuinely more committed to solving domestic problems than causing international ones, can the situation truly be altered and tensions truly and lastingly begin to abate.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Waiting in the Wings

As America's star power dims, who will take center stage?

When an actor in a show, even the star, freezes and forgets his lines during a performance, it's up to the others on the stage to break the uncomfortable silence and try to move the play forward. They might stumble or appear awkward, but the alternative -- to let the action grind to a halt -- is much worse. The audience waits, watching to see how and if the story will continue and at whose initiative. This is as true on the world stage as in the most remote regional theater.

This weekend I had the opportunity to sit with a group of well-known Egyptian actors and producers, the top filmmakers from a country in crisis. When they heard I was an American from Washington, they began to vent. "How could Washington have turned their back on us?" they asked. How could we have failed to see that the June revolution -- 30 million people coming together to stop a man who was destroying the country -- was, in the words of one actress, "a miracle." Why, she asked, had we failed to challenge the leader deposed in that revolution, Mohamed Morsy, while he was systematically undercutting the fragile democracy he was entrusted to help build? Why would we not call out the Muslim Brotherhood for its violence? For the threat it posed to the entire Middle East?

"We were your friends," the actress emoted. "We loved you. Why did you turn away?"

"You're asking the wrong questions," I said. "I understand your frustration, but you can't afford to be so focused on the past. You can't afford to ask why America is doing what it is doing or not doing. If you want to recapture American support and the support of the world, you have to make a new story yourselves, create a more positive narrative that says that the June revolution was a turning point for the better."

Another guest at the dinner table, an American who is working with the Egyptian government to help it shape its message linked to these issues, jumped in and said, "You have one thing you must focus on. In a matter of weeks, no more than a few months, you will have to produce the kind of result on the constitutional referendum that sends a clear message. Fifty-one percent in favor will not do. You need 70 or 75 percent support for the new constitution to have a clear mandate, for the new government to stand up to the opponents who will try to undermine it."

Others at the table nodded. They understood this central truth. Because for those with hopes for Egyptian democracy, there should not be two things on the agenda. There can only be one: Create meaningful, lasting change that proves that reforms are in the name of Egypt's people -- which in this case means producing a national constitution that is seen to be a genuine manifestation of the will of the Egyptian people.

In a country where the only real organizations with the capacity to effectively organize nationwide action are the military and the Brotherhood, this challenge is greater still. And the political infrastructure that such a campaign requires just isn't in place to support it. So such a campaign must be built and energized with a kind of single-mindedness that, frankly, the interim government has yet to sufficiently motivate or mobilize.

That said, however, there is something happening in Egypt today that is remarkable, and it's sending a signal not just to the volatile region that is home to that country, but to the world. America, on the grand stage, may have forgotten its lines and gone all deer-in-the-headlights at just the wrong moment, but others are stepping up and moving the story forward in positive ways. Even though the United States failed to be tough with Morsy when it could have and should have, the constructive heavy-lifting is being done by others.

The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis are working together to provide the current regime with resources. But they are not just throwing money at the problem, pumping cash into a central bank account. They are methodically selecting big visible projects that are creating jobs and helping the wounded economy in crucial areas like infrastructure investment. This sends a message to Egyptian voters that the new way may be better for them, producing a better future.

Naturally, the Gulf states are not doing this for entirely charitable reasons. They view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. They clearly want to stop it. They are also writing checks to cover Egyptian military arms purchases for which the United States has halted funding. But international actors act in their self-interest. And, geopolitics, like physics or a play in which the lead actor forgets his lines, abhors a vacuum.

So what is happening in Egypt, like what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world, is that once-secondary players are assuming new roles -- roles that would have been hard to imagine either during the bipolar years of the Cold War or the brief unipolar moment that followed. In many places -- Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind -- what will fill the void left behind by the United States is likely to exacerbate the mess we helped create. But in other areas (and Egypt may be one of them), if a new constitution is actually produced, is seen as advancing the country toward democracy, and is then widely embraced, it will send the healthy message that regional solutions can work.

Of course, America has not shuffled off the stage entirely. We have simply paused at an awkward moment. The world's sole superpower is not simply going to cease to play a role. But that role will inevitably, it seems, be somewhat smaller. We will be more circumspect in our actions, more reluctant to take risks. We have been strained by our own overreach internationally and by our mismanagement and political dysfunction at home, and we will move more slowly and take more limited actions. More often than before, we will stand by as others step up and find their own solutions. (All this, of course, as we and others continue to debate just how big the U.S. role should be, what risks we should take, and how we should lead.)

Meanwhile, we will play a guiding or catalytic role where we can in select situations worldwide, no doubt frustrating many who are used to a stronger helping hand and letting someone else (us) do the heavy lifting. But even light-touch American intervention can still be useful, as hinted at this week with Secretary of State John Kerry's constructive brief visit to Egypt in which he noted that the interim government is making progress toward democracy. He did not make the recent U.S. error of overemphasizing the trappings of democracy -- which are often used as covers as they were by Morsy for intensely anti-democratic activities. Kerry focused as he (and we) should on democratic values and on the importance of continuing progress in their service. It was helpful and timely.

As a consequence of these shifts, the world is going to have to get used to a new cast of featured players, many assuming more prominent roles than before in regional theaters of action. Indeed, recently, we have seen other examples of what this new world might look like. Whether they are homegrown trade initiatives like the Pacific Alliance in Latin America, or the German-Brazilian initiative in the U.N. to rein in surveillance abuses worldwide (though admittedly, the United States has had an inadvertently prominent role in that drama, wearing, unfortunately, a black hat), or the efforts among Asian countries to come up with a new regional architecture without much constructive involvement from the United States, or even the Russian initiative to address the chemical weapons issue in Syria, there are signs that a more subdued or hesitant America will leave open the door to new, more diverse collaborative processes for shaping the world of tomorrow.

That is not to simply accept American retreat. As the richest and most powerful nation in the world, we have a vital role to play. Nor does noting the shift to a more pluralistic international system minimize the importance of the U.S. role when we do put our shoulder to the wheel as we have in Israel and Palestine, belatedly in Syria on chemical weapons, or with regard to sanctions against Iran.

But even in those cases, the goal of the initiatives is -- let's be honest -- to produce outcomes in which the United States can be less active, less engaged. To some extent, what we are trying to do is make the world safe not for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson would have had it, but for American withdrawal. And frankly, given some of the mistakes we have made recently, it is hard not to wonder, unfamiliar and uncomfortable as it may be for everyone to accept, whether we might not sometimes get better outcomes from responsible leadership by actors other than the United States.

That said, while the world will get along just fine if the United States sometimes takes a supporting role on the grand stage of global affairs, encouraging others to take the lead, there is a caveat. And that of course is that we don't screw things up in the role we do play. Again, the example of Egypt comes to mind. Leave it to our regional allies, virtually all of whom -- Arabs and Israelis alike -- support giving the current government a chance, to take matters into their own hands. But don't then start punishing that government in ways that we didn't and should have in the case of Morsy.

As the great star of the global stage of the past century hesitates, pausing perhaps to reconsider its role, we cannot and should not expect the world to stop, nor can we or our friends around the world spend too much time lamenting the degree to which the present is not like the past or our own ideals of what a new new world order ought to look like. Problems need solving now. In the end, in places like Egypt, it is homegrown actors from that country and its neighbors who are going to have to continue to step into the limelight and shine and do it now, or we will have much darker outcomes to contemplate in the very near future.