Iranian breakthrough or Munich II?

  • 25 November 2013
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President Obama issues a statement on the Iran nuclear program deal on November 23.

Iranians are celebrating the announcement of an interim deal on its nuclear program. In the US? Well, there's a lot of noise in the echo chambers.

A day after Geneva, commentators around the country are grasping for historical allegories. Is Iran having its Glasnost? Or did President Obama achieve a geopolitical-landscape-altering Nixon in China moment?

Of course, it would not be a foreign policy story without the Obama-as-Chamberlain-in-Munich (or worse!) accusations being trotted out.

Opposition to the agreement focuses around a number of points: The US gave up too much. Iran gave up too little. The US turned its back on Israel. The US turned its back on Saudi Arabia. And then there's the catch-all critique that Obama can't be trusted, so the deal must be bad.

Here are some of the shots fired from the blogosphere:

Jack David in the National Review writes that the deal is "morally reprehensible" and will allow the nation to continue "the dangerous nuclear-weapons development and terrorist-support activities which it has long maintained".

Iran has gained plenty from the deal, says the American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka: "While the concessions to Iran on sanctions are in and of themselves not dramatic, the reversal in momentum for sanctions and the loss of the psychology of impenetrable sanctions is of immeasurable value to Tehran."

Former Bush administration Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton calls the deal "badly skewed" and an "abject surrender by the United States":

Iran's nuclear program was, from its inception, a weapons program, and it remains one today. Even modest constraints, easily and rapidly reversible, do not change that fundamental political and operational reality. And while some already-known aspects of Iran's nuclear program are returned to enhanced scrutiny, the undeclared and likely unknown military work will continue to expand, thus recalling the drunk looking for his lost car keys under the street lamp because of the better lighting.

Then there's what this means for Israel. The Wall Street Journal's editorial board notes, disapprovingly, that the US is giving its long-time ally the cold shoulder: "Far from having Israel's back, as Mr Obama likes to say, the US and Europe are moving to a strategy of trying to contain Israel rather than containing Iran."

"We may not know just how big a failure it has been for some time, but we already know this: In the Middle East, the only one celebrating is Iran," writes the New York Post's editorial board.

On the other side of the ideological divide, some commentators are heralding this as a major foreign policy victory for Obama.

Bob Dreyfuss of the Nation calls the deal "historic", as much for the break both sides had to make from interests within their nations as for the details of the agreement:

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry signed the deal in explicit, full-frontal defiance of American hawks, neoconservatives and hardliners, the Israel lobby and anti-Iran partisans in Congress. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his team, backed by President Hassan Rouhani - elected in June with a mandate to do exactly this - have similarly defied their own country's hardliners and skeptics, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and by what Zarif calls Iran's own Tea Party. And the United States struck the deal despite outright hostility, bordering on hysteria, from its two chief allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Fred Kaplan in Slate labels the agreement "a triumph" that Republicans would be praising had President George W Bush negotiated it. "This deal goes way beyond any arms-control accord that the United States and the Soviet Union struck in the first 18 years of detente," he writes.

Kaplan notes that the US and its allies are only lifting a "very small percentage" of the sanctions on Iran, while the agreement "makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months".

He also explains what he sees as the real reason why the interim agreement is being met by opposition:

Some people (including the Israeli president, many American neoconservatives and lots of Sunni Arabs) are worried, above all, that this agreement might work. They don't want to see the United States and the other big powers cozying up with Iran. The Sunnis fear that doing so might tilt the regional balance of power against them and toward the Shiites. Some Israelis fear that a deal could signal an American retreat from the entire region (though many Israelis, including former Mossad chiefs, support an Iranian deal, within reason). And some American neoconservatives … well, let's face it, they trust Netanyahu more than they trust Obama.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times' picks up on the Netanyahu connection and contends that domestic electoral politics is driving congressional opposition to the agreement: "Never have I seen more lawmakers - Democrats and Republicans - more willing to take Israel's side against their own president's. I'm certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations."

The American Prospect's Gershom Gorenberg writes that Mr Netanyahu and Israeli opponents to the agreement are suffering from Agreement Anxiety Disorder (AAD) - "a reflexive certainty that any time an antagonist is willing to make an agreement to end or manage a conflict, the deal is a deception".

"Israelis come by post-traumatic stress honestly," Gorenberg says. "But not everyone is equally affected; far from it. Some people learn from war that you should make peace. For Netanyahu, the Munich Pact reveals where all peace agreements will lead, and the British shutting the doors of Palestine to Jews in 1939 shows great powers must never be trusted."

Psychology aside, Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg writes that dissuading Israel from attacking Iran was a key goal for Mr Obama during the Iranian negotiations: "He boxed-in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so comprehensively that it's unimaginable Israel will strike Iran in the foreseeable future."

As for the deal, he writes, it may be "the least-worst option", giving the US time to figure out if Iran is serious about dismantling its nuclear programme. For the final talks to be successful, however, negotiators will have to overcome compelling reasons why Iran would want to avoid an effective agreement: "It is in the best long-term interest of the regime to have the means to quickly build a nuclear weapon. It's certainly not in the interest of the regime to agree to be disarmed by the US, its arch-enemy and the country still often referred to as the Great Satan."

Oh yeah, that's right. All this chatter is coming in reaction to an interim agreement. Interim. Imagine what we'll be hearing if the US and Iran reach a final accord - one that has to be voted on by Congress.

Better buckle up.