Can Iran save President Obama’s legacy?

It is increasingly looking likely that the Iranian nuclear issue will define the Barack Obama legacy

Joyce Karam
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With an open conflict in Syria, a collapsing peace process, uncertainty in Egypt and a more defiant Russia on the global stage, it is increasingly looking likely that the Iranian nuclear issue will define the Barack Obama legacy in foreign policy.

A deal with Iran as soon as this summer on the nuclear issue could salvage Obama’s chances at a groundbreaking accomplishment that could transform the Middle East and Washington’s relations with Tehran, plagued since 1979. By the same logic, the possible failure of the Iranian talks will dash Obama’s hopes at a presidency marked by transformational foreign policy, and leave one built on key domestic policy accomplishments, while limiting the U.S. footprint abroad.


The Iranian bet

The current status quo in the Middle East, with the exception of the Iranian nuclear talks, has put U.S. foreign policy on a perilous path, with little to no hope left for diplomatic breakthroughs. The Geneva framework for Syria has completely collapsed with Syria’s ruthless President Bashar al-Assad seeking a new term in June, while Secretary John Kerry’s promise of a framework agreement between Israelis and Palestinians has evaporated. In Egypt, Obama’s Cairo speech is more of a history reference to good intentions and an ambitious foreign policy that the U.S. had in 2009, as a wave of uncertainties cloud U.S.-Egyptian relations.

A nuclear deal with Iran will carry strategic implications for the Middle East in reshuffling the balance of power with sanctions eased

Joyce Karam

In Russia, the “reset button” that the White House and the Kremlin pressed in 2009 seems to have been replaced with a “control button” as proxy wars ensue between Moscow and Washington in Ukraine, Syria and in the natural gas and arms sales markets across the globe.

It is against this dim background, that the Iranian nuclear talks hold promise for U.S. diplomacy and Obama’s own legacy. It is an issue that the 44th president has had eyes on from day one in office, in part to avoid military confrontation and meet strategic goals regionally as well as to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Prospects for a deal

There are increasing signs that the current talks being held in Vienna could conclude in a long-term agreement on the nuclear issue, curbing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon, and upping international inspection of Iranian facilities while gradually easing sanctions on Tehran.

According to diplomatic sources, the atmosphere of the talks is “very positive,” and delving into key details of the nuclear program, the benefits of an agreement and the ramifications of failure. Representatives of the P5+1 and those of Iran even call each other on a first name basis, and conversations can get “flirtatious.” But flirting aside, the Obama administration is prioritizing those negotiations and investing diplomatically with allies and Congress alike in preventing measures that could scuttle a deal, as well as providing assurances that lay the ground for an agreement.

While some in the administration put the chances of a deal at 50/50, U.S. officials have recently told the Wall Street Journal that these odds have gone up, and that the Obama administration is convinced it can conclude an agreement by the July 20 target date despite “significant political hurdles.” Outside Vienna, these hurdles include primarily selling the deal to Congress and regional allies, especially Israel who could use its political clout in Washington or even air power to squander what it might perceive as “a bad deal.” While it’s unlikely that Senate Democrats will go against their own president, the upcoming midterm elections in November poses timing problems for the White House, with the risk of Democrats losing senate majority and crippling Obama’s agenda. This and the internal pressure on Iranian President Hassan Rowhani give more urgency to the July 20th deadline.

A nuclear deal with Iran will carry strategic implications for the Middle East in reshuffling the balance of power with sanctions eased, and on Iran’s own relations with the United States and the West. It would, nevertheless, rescue Obama’s foreign policy legacy, unless his efforts meet the fate of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan during the hostage crisis and the Iran contra scandal.


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 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 B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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