Andrew Hammond: Iran deal signals shift in focus

US president, hampered by domestic political gridlock, is looking to foreign policy to build his legacy, writes Andrew Hammond

Many re-elected US presidents have found it difficult to acquire domestic policy momentum. Picture: AP
Many re-elected US presidents have found it difficult to acquire domestic policy momentum. Picture: AP

The historic interim deal reached in Geneva at the weekend will see Iran’s nuclear programme curbed, at least temporarily, in exchange for limited, phased international sanctions relief. This sets the stage for the possibility of a comprehensive agreement in 2014.

Pre-empting criticism from some countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, Washington has framed the six-month deal as potentially game changing, and one that maintains pressure on Tehran with a majority of international sanctions still in place until any long-term agreement is reached. In the words of US president Barack Obama: “Diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

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Key elements of the breakthrough, negotiated between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China and Germany), include: Iran stopping enrichment of uranium above 5 per cent; neutralising its stockpile of uranium already refined to a fissile concentration of 20 per cent (a step away from the level needed for nuclear weapons); and an end to construction at the Arak research reactor.

In exchange, Tehran will secure access to $4 billion (£2.5bn) in oil sales revenue from frozen accounts. The deal also suspends restrictions on Iran’s trade in key materials, including petrochemicals, car and plane parts, and gold.

One key danger for the deal is that the US Congress is considering bills that would impose new sanctions on Iran. The Obama administration will intensify its lobbying against those measures, which, if passed by the legislature, would undermine US confidence building with Tehran.

The landmark Iranian deal, combined with continued uncertainty in Syria and Egypt, has refocused Washington’s attention towards the Middle East in a manner unanticipated by Obama only a few months ago. In addition, the administration has spent significant political capital resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Intensified US focus on the Middle East has accentuated a shift, common to many recent re-elected US presidents, of increased focus on foreign policy in second terms. In part, this reflects the fact that presidents often see foreign policy as key to the legacy they wish to build. For instance, after the 2001 terrorist attacks, George W Bush sought to spread his freedom agenda across the Middle East. Bill Clinton also devoted significant time to trying to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

As important as the Iranian nuclear agreement might prove to be, the Middle East is only one of two regions in which Obama is looking for legacy. Since he was elected in 2008, Asia in general, and China in particular, has assumed greater importance in US policy. To this end, Obama is seeking to continue the so-called pivot towards Asia-Pacific through landmark initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Key threats, however, remain on the horizon. These include a dramatic, sustained escalation of tension in the Middle East and/or the remaining possibility of further devastating terrorist attacks on the US homeland.

The likelihood of Obama concentrating more on foreign policy also reflects domestic US politics. In particular, the gridlock in Washington. Since re-election, Obama has achieved little domestic policy success. His gun control bill was defeated, immigration reform faces significant opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and the prospect of a long-term budgetary “grand bargain” with Congress looks unlikely. Moreover, implementation of his landmark healthcare initiative has been botched.

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Many re-elected presidents in the post-war era have, like Obama, found it difficult to acquire domestic policy momentum. In part, this is because the party of re-elected presidents, as with the Democrats now, often hold a weaker position in Congress. Thus Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Clinton in 1996 were all re-elected alongside Congresses where both the House and Senate were controlled by their partisan opponents.

Another factor encouraging enhanced focus on foreign policy, which Congress has less latitude over than domestic policy, in second terms is the fact that re-elected presidents have often been hampered by scandals in recent decades. For instance, Watergate ended the Nixon administration in 1974, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal led to Clinton being impeached.

Since Obama’s re-election, a series of domestic problems have hit the administration. These include revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted some conservative groups for special scrutiny; and the Department of Justice’s secret subpoening of private phone records of several AP reporters and editors in the wake of a terrorist plot leak.

Even if Obama escapes further significant problems, he will not be able to avoid the “lame-duck” factor. That is, as a president cannot seek more than two terms, domestic political focus will refocus elsewhere, particularly after the November 2014 congressional ballots when the 2016 presidential election campaign kicks into gear.

Taken overall, the Iranian breakthrough and wider events in the Middle East are therefore likely to accentuate Obama’s focus on foreign policy in his remaining period of office as he seeks a presidential legacy. And this shift is only likely to be reinforced if, as anticipated, the US economic recovery continues to build up steam in 2014.

• Andrew Hammond was formerly US Analyst at Oxford Analytica, and a special adviser in the Tony Blair government