The nuclear bargain between the United States and Iran represents a badly needed success, however temporary, for a politically weakened American president whose second-term agenda has run into deep trouble. Equally important, it represents a new emphasis on foreign affairs, where a commander in chief has enormous latitude regardless of his political standing at home.
President Obama called the complex six-month agreement, announced Saturday, a "promising first step" toward preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In exchange for Tehran taking steps to assure the West that it will use its nuclear program only for peaceful purposes, the United States and its allies will begin to lift economic sanctions against Iran.
Conservatives express deep skepticism. They argue that Iran can't be trusted, in large part because radical mullahs still control the government there. The government of Israel, which considers any Iranian nuclear weapons program a mortal threat, condemned the agreement, arguing that it's based on Iranian deception. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters the deal is a "historic mistake."
"Like the agreement with North Korea in 2005, this agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place," Netanyahu said "....For years, the international community has demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment [which is the precursor to making nuclear weapons]. Now, for the first time, the international community has formally consented that Iran continue its enrichment of uranium."
The deal doesn't require Senate approval, as formal treaties do. And some Democrats, who control the Senate, indicated that they will give the deal six months to see if it's working.
But others aren't as patient, signaling that Obama may have a hard time gaining acceptance for the arrangement. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, expressed "disappointment" in the deal and said the Western powers went too far in agreeing to ease economic sanctions against the Tehran regime. Iran should have been required to limit its nuclear weapons capability in a more extensive way, Schumer said.
"This disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return [from holiday recess] in December," Schumer said.
However, the moderating of the public tone between the United States and Iran was remarkable – a success all by itself. A decade ago, President George W. Bush called Iran a member of the "axis of evil." And the relationship between the United States and Iran has been antagonistic since radicals held Americans hostage in Tehran for more than a year during Jimmy Carter's presidency more than three decades ago.
Obama's gamble for peace comes at a time when his public standing is fading at home and where he can't get much accomplished in Congress. Republicans control the House and remain implacably opposed to much of his agenda. As a result, he has been moving toward bypassing Congress on domestic issues, such as limiting climate change. The Iran deal signals that he also will move more aggressively on that unilateral course internationally.
Other presidents in trouble at home also have turned to the international arena to get things done. They included George W. Bush, who focused on his "war on terror" and on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ronald Reagan made foreign affairs the centerpiece of his second term when he joined with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to cool the arms race and reduce superpower tensions. In 1988, during the final year of his administration, Reagan said he no longer believed that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" because so much progress had been made to change Soviet society and reduce nuclear tensions.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.