Obama’s complicated path to a deal with Iran

U.S. agreement with Iran on nuclear program a challenge to White House

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

There is little doubt that the Obama administration would have wanted to see an interim deal with Iran on its nuclear program last week, had France not crashed the party in Geneva. Today, the path for an agreement is steeper and more complicated for the White House as it tries to reassure Congress at home and allies abroad, while also offering Iran an acceptable proposal.

France’s last-minute obstruction of the proposed deal is forcing the Obama administration to rethink its whole strategy, and work more diligently to avoid new setbacks or legislative surprises. The administration is refocusing on Congress and reassuring regional allies, while at the same time racing against the clock to strike a deal.

Inside Congress

Perhaps not since France gave the Statue of Liberty to the U.S. in 1886 has the Republican party in the United States been so enchanted with French foreign policy. “Vive la France” is a slogan that has been echoing all across Congress this week, quickly overtaking the anti-French sentiment that followed the Iraq war in 2003. Back then, Republicans in Congress reintroduced “freedom fries” to replace “French fries” and chastised the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for opposing the war.

But all of that is history now. Congress members from both parties cheered the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as he pushed the U.S. diplomatic train off track and ended the marathon talks on Iran without a deal.

Perhaps not since France gave the Statue of Liberty to the U.S. in 1886 has the Republican party in the United States been so enchanted with French foreign policy.

Joyce Karam

In real terms, Fabius validated the concerns of many in the legislative branch about the risk of Obama being too soft on Iran, and giving away leverage in return for a few concessions from Tehran. The fact that the French diplomats were the ones to push the shutting down the Arak heavy water reactor reflected badly on the administration in Capitol Hill, and has reenergized calls into ignoring the White House and increasing sanctions on Tehran.

Even with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden going to Congress yesterday to urge a longer pause on imposing new sanctions, the mood in the Senate is growing impatient with the administration and is unlikely to wait too long or agree to loosen the sanctions noose on Tehran. If the Senators decide to ignore the White House and tighten sanctions, however, it could hijack the diplomatic process and kill any chances for a deal.

Regional allies

The regional anxieties about Iran especially in the Gulf and in Israel add to the hurdles that Washington is encountering during the negotiations. Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia, while was helpful in averting a crisis, it was quickly overshadowed by his unexpected rush to be in Geneva days later and holding talks with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif. Washington is perceived by many as too eager to get a deal with Iran, whereas France is seen as more committed to its traditional allies.

Saudi Arabia already has concerns about the Obama administration abandoning its allies. It is no news that Riyadh was unhappy with Obama pressuring former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, or in later backing away from supporting the rebels in Syria with lethal equipment or punishing the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons.

This trust deficit is quickly rising between Washington and the Gulf allies. Obama has not visited the Gulf since 2009, and at a time of heightened anxiety about U.S. security commitment, a presidential or a vice-presidential visit will be more reassuring than trips by members of the cabinet. Addressing regional concerns about Iran, and not exclusively the nuclear file, is also important to Tehran’s neighbors. It is Iran’s influence and role through its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen that triggers the day-to-day fears in the region.

Stricter Proposal

The political pressure on the administration is changing the atmospherics and expectations around a potential deal. The bar is higher for the Obama team regarding what terms will be acceptable to the P5+1, especially the French, and that Washington will be able to sell to its regional allies and the Congress.

These factors narrow Obama’s field for maneuvering with Iran, and make the prospect of a deal - while still foreseeable in the coming few weeks - harder.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with a focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a BA in Journalism and an MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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