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With Iran deal, Obama seeks ‘Nixon in China’ moment

The president’s willingness to make concessions has attracted justified criticism

March 12, 2015 1:15PM ET

What President Barack Obama wants from the negotiations with Iran over its suspected secret nuclear weapons program is the diplomatic victory of beginning a new era of reconciliation for the U.S. and Iran that rivals President Richard Nixon’s détente with China.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands Obama’s ambitions. Netanyahu’s controversial trip to America, just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resumed talks in Geneva, aimed to build a countervailing narrative that Iran cannot be trusted to make peace with the West as long as Iran continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors and threaten Israel with destruction.

The Obama administration has pursued the goal of the president’s embassy to Tehran from the beginning of its first term. Naysayers regard it as an idée fixe. Its achievement would boldly recreate Nixon’s famous trip to China to meet with Premier Mao Zedong in February 1972 to launch a new era of U.S.-China relations.

Obama’s overwhelming desire to be remembered as a transformative statesman, despite domestic disappointments and political turmoil, explains the White House’s puzzling concessions in several critical areas of the negotiations in Geneva.


Iran has refused to answer questions by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), about its longtime alleged nuclear weapon research. Iran also refuses the IAEA’s requests for access to military sites suspected of hosting weaponization activity. 

In addition, recent reporting by the IAEA indicates that Iran may be increasing its low-enriched uranium stockpile despite the promises in the established Joint Plan of Action that the P5+1 (the five permanent members of U.N. Security Council plus Germany) established with Iran in 2013.

Despite Iran’s lack of cooperation, the deal being discussed in Geneva will reportedly include a perilous so-called sunset clause. After 10 years of inspections and perhaps five more years of transition, Iran would be left to its own devices, perhaps to develop nuclear weapons. What started out as a negotiation to ban nuclear weapons development in a rogue state, including removing all centrifuges in all facilities, has now become a plan to freeze Iran with thousand of centrifuges, but only for a while. 

In addition, nothing in the negotiations is said to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, without which Iran cannot deliver the weapons it once secretly tried to develop.

More threatening to peace, neither the Geneva negotiations nor talks between the U.S. and Iran speak to Iran’s military operations against its neighbors in order to extend its regional hegemony.

Netanyahu’s address has done little to reverse the momentum in place for negotiators to render an agreement that decidedly favors Iran.

Iran has developed close operational ties with the homicidal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. In Iraq, Iran is allied with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government and has extended its influence over the tattered Iraqi army and the swelling Shia militias. Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, is reported to be directing the offensive against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. And in Yemen, Iran is closely aligned with the Houthi, who have overrun the capital of Sanaa, driven the elected government into exile in Aden and shattered the country.

New information suggests that Iran has established a working relationship with the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir, who is blamed for genocide in Darfur. The plan is to use Sudan as a base to arm and train and Islamic militants ranging from factions of the Muslim Brotherhood to warlords pledging allegiance to ISIL. The goal is to undermine Arab governments across the Sahel, from Cairo to Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers and Rabat. The first target is Cyrenaica province in Libya.


The Obama administration’s plan to accommodate the predatory regime in Tehran invites the opposition of not only Israel but also the Arab governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.  

Saudi Arabia is fully prepared to match Iran’s threat of a nuclear weapon program with one of its own. Jordan’s King Abdullah is working closely with Jerusalem and Cairo to prepare for any new Iranian aggression after its success in Geneva.  

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi is reportedly frustrated by the Obama administration’s ignoring the long-standing U.S.-Egypt alliance while entreating exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Turkey under the protection of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sisi understands that Iran and Turkey are in alliance, though Iran has the upper hand because it supplies Turkey with oil. And he recognizes the threat of Iran’s agents on his border with Libya.

Obama seeks the supreme validation of bringing peace to the Middle East by concluding a nuclear deal with Iran. But this folly is better understood as a trigger for the whole region to accelerate into a nuclear arms race as well as sinking deeper into the quagmire of civil war in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Netanyahu’s well-received speech to the U.S. Congress did not break any ground about the threat of Iran to Israel or the rest of the region. He restated clearly the case that Iran is not to be trusted after decades of deception and predation. Nonetheless, his address has done little to reverse the momentum in place for negotiators to render a controversial agreement that decidedly favors Iran by lifting U.S. sanctions without any guarantees of transparency from Iran.

The U.S. Congress, even with a bipartisan bill that demands oversight and approval of the Iran deal, cannot get past Obama’s veto threat. The recent theatrical ploy by 47 Republican senators to write an open letter of contrariness to unspecified Iranian leaders has only served to distract from the reports that the negotiations, now moving from Geneva to Lausanne, Switzerland, for the next phase, are close to completion.

The truest challenge to this deal is the potential for review by the next administration in 22 months. By then, Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatolla Ali Khamenei will have enjoyed their moment in the sun as Nixon and Mao.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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