Engaging Iran in talks may yet provide dividends

The British diplomat Harold Nicolson observed in 1960 that “a good negotiation takes about as long as it takes an elephant to have a baby.” That has been true in the protracted Iran nuclear talks, although in this case, the baby may turn out to be stillborn.

Negotiators were still haggling over the framework as they pushed through Tuesday night’s deadline. Officials cautioned that some details remained fuzzy. That’s a bad sign — especially in terms of approval by a U.S. Congress that may opt for deal-killing sanctions if members think the agreement is too vague.

Whatever the endgame produces, it’s useful to focus on the process of negotiation itself, which is nearly as important as whether there’s a sustainable deal.

First, there is the fact of U.S.-Iranian engagement. For more than 18 months, Iran has been in direct talks with a power it once demonized as the “Great Satan.” Iranian hard-liners certainly remain, but the nation that chanted in unison “Death to America” is probably gone forever.

This process of engagement is a significant achievement of the Obama administration, even if the nuclear accord unravels. Iran is now a diplomatic and political factor in regional and world politics, for better or worse. The right U.S. strategy was to prevent this rising Iran from getting nuclear weapons, not to pretend that it didn’t exist.

President Obama’s personal investment in this process is easy to forget, since so much of the heavy lifting has been done since 2013 by his tireless secretary of state, John Kerry. But it was Obama who conceptualized the outreach and pledged in his inaugural address in January 2009, in clearly decipherable code: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Engaging Iran has been a model of secret diplomacy. It was initiated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 through a back channel provided by Oman. The key negotiators were two brilliant “gray men” of diplomacy, former State Department officials William Burns and Jake Sullivan. As the talks became public, Kerry embraced them with a skill and enthusiasm that should put him on the list of potential Democratic presidential nominees if Clinton stumbles or withdraws.

Outreach to Iran was only half the problem. So Obama crafted sticks, as well as carrots. After U.S. intelligence discovered a secret Iranian nuclear-enrichment facility dug into a mountain near Qom, Obama used the revelation to build a strong international coalition, including China and Russia, for sanctions and eventual negotiations. And within days after taking office, he authorized a covert program of cyberattacks against Iran’s enrichment facilities, using what became known as the “Stuxnet” virus.

Obama’s careful stewardship of the negotiating coalition, though it weakened his hand in Ukraine and Syria, has helped maintain pressure on Tehran. Iran had hoped to divide Russia and China from the West; but this past week’s scenes of negotiators shuttling in and out of Switzerland suggested otherwise. As for future cyberwar, if the negotiations should blow up, the Iranians can only guess what else the U.S. and its friends may have up their digital sleeves.

Obama began the negotiation with the idea that a nuclear deal could open a broader dialogue that could eventually lead to a regional security framework that balanced the interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia. That was a worthy goal but, for now, it’s unachievable.

What Obama couldn’t have anticipated was how the Arab revolutions that began in 2010 would shatter regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and weaken the Sunni Arab world. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, were terrified. Iran, fighting through its proxies, seemed to be on the march — making the idea of a regional accommodation with Tehran all but unthinkable. The Sunni world was too weak for a grand bargain.

The Sunni pushback in recent weeks in Yemen has drawn howls of anguish: Not another ruinous conflict in the Middle East, worry the critics. But it has a benign side: It’s only by shoring up their defenses against Iranian power that the Sunni nations will ever feel confident enough for the broader negotiations (someday) with Iran that can truly stabilize the region. Obama this week made the realpolitik announcement of renewed military assistance for Egypt; this will give the mainstream Sunni powers more backbone to confront Sunni and Shiite extremism.

Keep your eye on the details of the Iran nuclear negotiations as they emerge. But many of the big, transforming changes in the region are already underway.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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