For Barack Obama, Tuesday’s nuclear deal with Iran was a long time coming. And it was no surprise.
As early as 2007, when he was a young first-term senator running an upstart campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against the formidable Hillary Clinton, he signaled that he wanted to change the nation’s course by engaging directly with longtime adversaries such as Iran and Cuba.
He won the nomination, of course. And the presidency. And on Tuesday, he summoned the news media out of bed for an unusually early morning statement, eager to talk about his approach and the agreement it produced, prodded by his personal involvement with negotiators.
“This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change – change that makes our country, and the world, safer and more secure,” Obama said shortly after 7 a.m. EDT.
He likened himself to a predecessor, John F. Kennedy.
“This deal is also in line with a tradition of American leadership,” Obama said. “It’s now more than 50 years since President Kennedy stood before the American people and said, ‘Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.’”
“What he has done is produce what he wanted – a slower, smaller, verified Iran agreement,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to the State Department who now serves as vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “He believes in diplomacy.”
This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s not a partisan issue at all. It’s about right versus wrong.
House Speaker John Boener, R-Ohio
Obama has stuck to his philosophy despite criticism by Republicans that his actions appear so weak to foreign leaders and ill-suited to the complexities around the globe that they allowed for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East.
In a series of speeches, he has outlined his doctrine as resisting pressure to intervene militarily at flashpoints around the globe; limiting military force to cases where U.S. interests are clearly at risk, Americans are threatened or allies are in danger; and putting greater emphasis on allies or foreign governments.
In the last year alone, Obama has underscored his desire to change course through negotiation. He established diplomatic relations with Cuba, opened a dialogue with Venezuela, and reached an unprecedented agreement on greenhouse gases with China.
Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Iran agreement, like the earlier announcement on renewed Cuba-U.S. relations, is designed to show that Obama will not let Congress stand in his way in engaging with countries that the U.S. has had hostile relations with in the past.
Alterman said all presidents in modern times have engaged in a foreign policy gamble, from Richard Nixon’s visit to China to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. “This is President Obama’s big bet,” he said of Iran.
Obama successfully sold himself in his first presidential campaign as a leader who would repair relations around the world after Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Asked during a 2007 debate whether he’d be willing to meet with U.S. adversaries such as Iran without precondition, Obama said he would.
“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them – which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration – is ridiculous,” he said.
Clinton, then his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, agreed with the value of negotiating but suggested he was naive to open the door without precondition.
After he came into office, Obama’s administration pursued diplomacy with the Iranian government. Even after imposing sanctions, he “always made clear our openness and preference for resolving our concerns of an Iran nuclear program through diplomatic process,” said a senior administration official knowledgeable about the issue but not authorized to speak as a matter of policy.
Obama deployed diplomats to meet secretly with Iranian officials and sent letters to both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani at the beginning of the negotiations. He also spoke to Rouhani by telephone in the first conversation between the presidents of the United States and Iran in more than 30 years.
“He persisted despite lots of criticism,” said Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor of public policy and political science and a former senior adviser to the State Department policy planning director.
The historic nuclear agreement announced today is the product of years of tough, bold and clear-eyed leadership from President Obama.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
In recent weeks, Obama met with members of his negotiating team before they headed to Vienna to review the United States’ bottom line. Later, he spoke by video teleconference with his national security team in Vienna and kept in constant touch with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. His daily briefing every morning was largely dedicated to updates on the Iran talks.
Another administration official, speaking from Vienna, said Obama “has dug into this, he has spent the time, he knows it well. He’s very clear about the strategic frame in his own mind about what we’re doing here, why we did it, what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Now, Obama must begin to sell the plan to the world.
He called leaders in the House of Representatives and the Senate on Monday to brief them about the deal. He made a flurry of calls on Tuesday to allies, including the leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Israel. And, aides say, he will take his case directly to the American people starting with a White House news conference.