Obama's Iran efforts recall historic missteps

CHAMBERLAIN MOMENT? Mr Obama making a statement at the White House on April 2, after a deal was reached on Iran's nuclear programme.


    Apr 22, 2015

    Obama's Iran efforts recall historic missteps

    SINCE the White House announced the conclusion of the framework agreement in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and the United States and other major powers, under which Iran would suspend its military nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions on it, critics have compared the accord to the agreement between Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, Britain and France that was signed in Munich in 1938.


    Many historians regard what is now referred to in shorthand as "Munich" as a symbol of the West's policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany in the 1930s, which allowed Hitler to pursue aggressive diplomatic and military policies in Europe and encouraged him to attack Poland in 1939, a move that marked the start of World War II.

    The conventional wisdom has been that if then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had adopted a tougher stand vis-a-vis Hitler, including by threatening to use military power in response to Germany's aggression against Czechoslovakia, the German leader would have been forced to change his expansionist approach and embrace a more accommodative one.

    And then - who knows - perhaps World War II and its many horrors would not have happened.

    Applying the Munich historical analogy to the Lausanne deal, critics of US President Barack Obama are comparing him to Chamberlain and arguing that the agreement with Iran, an anti-status-quo power like Nazi Germany, amounts to an appeasement of the ayatollahs in Teheran.

    It would only encourage them to pursue an aggressive policy in the Middle East, threaten the security of America's allies there, and eventually produce a cycle of nuclear proliferation and ignite a new regional war.

    Opponents of the Lausanne agreement in Washington won a stunning political victory last week when, in a 19 to 0 vote, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a Bill allowing Congress a say on whether to give the green light to the final deal that would emerge from the negotiations with Iran, which are scheduled to conclude by June 30.

    Mr Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry were opposed to the idea of Congress voting on the deal that would be concluded with Iran, arguing that the White House has the authority to sign such an accord without lawmakers interjecting themselves into the process.

    The earlier expectation was that the hawkish Republicans who have been critical of the framework deal would insist on having Congress vote on the final deal, but that the majority of the Democrats on the committee - which include some of Mr Obama's long-time supporters - would oppose the Republican initiative.


    That the Bill ended up winning a solid bipartisan backing was a clear reflection of the growing uneasiness on Capitol Hill over the White House's approach towards Iran and its entire foreign policy agenda.

    Even lawmakers who reject the Obama-is-Chamberlain comparison are concerned that the US administration is willing to make too many concessions to Iran and, in particular, to lift the sanctions in exchange for pledges that the Iranians could eventually violate.

    The Bill would require that the administration send the text of the final agreement to Congress after its completion, and states that sanctions would be lifted only after Congress approves that move following a 30-day review.

    In practical terms, it means that if Mr Obama does not want Congress to reject his deal with Iran, he would need to consult Congress before he signs it.

    But the Bill also gives the White House the authority to veto legislation opposing the Iran deal that Congress may approve.

    In that case, Mr Obama would be able to sustain his veto with the support of 34 senators (out of 100), which would give the green light to the final accord.

    The current assumption is that it would be difficult to imagine a scenario under which Mr Obama would be unable to win the backing of 34 Democratic senators for the deal.

    After all, notwithstanding the opinion polls indicating that the President is not very popular among Americans, history suggests that when it comes to critical issues of foreign policy, Congress tends to follow the leadership of a sitting president.


    As a general rule, that is true.


    But Mr Obama and his aides may want to recall another American president who, not unlike the current one, was destined for greatness and who decided at the end of his second term in office to push forward a historic foreign policy initiative and failed to get Congress behind him, with disastrous consequences for US status in the world.

    So forget the comparison with Chamberlain.

    In many ways, Mr Obama reminds one not so much of that British prime minister but of Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, who was elected to office in 1913 and brought the US into World War I.

    Like Mr Obama, Wilson was a former professor and a great orator, and a bit of an introvert who did not like to do small talk, or to slap the backs and "schmooze" with other politicians, including members of Congress who considered him to be too detached and somewhat arrogant.

    And like Mr Obama, Wilson was a very politically divisive figure who seemed to feel that he had a historic mission to accomplish, and that he knew what he was doing and expected you to follow him.

    That sense of political aloofness and intellectual arrogance, and a failure to build political bridges to the opposition Republican party, explains why Wilson suffered a devastating political blow when he failed to win congressional support for what was considered to be his major diplomatic initiative: the creation of the League of Nations after World War I.

    In particular, he was unable to sell the idea of the US joining the League of Nations to members of the Republican opposition that controlled Congress and who did not trust him and felt he was not consulting them in the diplomatic process.

    They ended up sabotaging his grand plan to make history.

    Which is what could happen to Mr Obama and his Iran deal if he continues to operate under the assumption that Republicans and Democrats in Congress will allow him to conclude an agreement with the ayatollahs in Teheran without consulting them on key issues, including the pace of lifting the sanctions and the measures to be used by United Nations inspectors to monitor Iran's nuclear programme.

    While the framework agreement provided a solid foundation for a final deal, US lawmakers are worried that Iran would be able to keep most of its nuclear technology intact and be ready to produce a bomb when it would not be bound by the restrictions in the agreement after 10 years.

    These are all serious problems.

    And at a time when the White House's foreign policy agenda seems to be crumbling - including the failure to deal effectively with the chaos in the Middle East and with a resurgent and threatening Russia, and with a "pivot" to East Asia that seems to be stuck somewhere - lawmakers are not going to allow Mr Obama and his secretary of state to make a deal with Iran without consulting Congress.

    And if Mr Obama does not want Congress to sabotage his grand plan to make history and to ensure that at least 34 senators support it, he should pay attention to what they are saying.