Obama's Hands On, Hands Off Foreign Policy

Iran the exception

By
Carol Lee / WSJ
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The U.S. is trying to broker a trio of high-stakes foreign-policy deals over the next few days, but just one of them – a nuclear agreement with Iran – is of particular importance to President Obama.

For Mr. Obama, a deal with Iran is one of the only major planks in his foreign-policy agenda that is still within reach. Middle East peace talks, for instance, have so collapsed that the president is now merely seeking a ceasefire to quash the current flare up of violence between Israel and Hamas.

And unlike the two other efforts the administration is pursuing this week – a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and a new coordinated package of U.S. and European sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine – the Iran negotiations are a rare place where Mr. Obama is shaping events rather than reacting to them.

From Ukraine and Russia to Syria, Israel, Gaza and Iraq, and even the crisis at the southern U.S. border – all of the issues flaring up in recent weeks have put the president in a reactive, not proactive position. Iran, on the other hand, is a piece of the foreign policy portfolio Mr. Obama has sought to shape since entering the White House in 2009.

So it’s hard to imagine talks would get this close to the July 20 deadline and the White House would end negotiations without adding time on the clock.

Mr. Obama has invested a tremendous amount of personal time in rapprochement with Tehran.

He pursued secret backchannel U.S.-Iran talks knowing they would strain relations with key allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, once they became public. And he’s burned domestic political capital to keep Iran talks going by holding off members of his own political party who want additional sanctions against Tehran.

Inside the White House the Iran issue is treated as a coveted part of Mr. Obama’s would-be presidential legacy. An Iran deal is, essentially, viewed as the Obama foreign policy brass ring. Administration officials half-jokingly muse about Mr. Obama flying on Air Force One from Tel Aviv to Tehran before leaving office in 2017.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that Mr. Obama will decide on a path forward in coming days, after discussing the issue with Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s said talks in Vienna had made progress but significant gaps remain, and consulting lawmakers in Congress.

“I’m not in a position to speculate about which path will be taken at this point,” Mr. Earnest said, “but that will be the subject of a number of discussions in the days ahead.”

Despite the discussions, one thing is certain: this is purely Mr. Obama’s call.

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Aug
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