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Obama opens up on Iran

What he's learned about war, Republicans, and his own foreign policy

Toward the end of our meeting with President Obama, one of us asked whether the Iran nuclear deal might change the future of that country's poisonously anti-American politics, and Obama drifted from the technical and political details he'd otherwise focused on into something of a more reflective tone.

"I just don’t know," he said, leaning back a bit in his chair for the first time since he'd arrived. "When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out.

"He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping would suddenly come in and decide that it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice, and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march," Obama said, paraphrasing the famous aphorism by Mao's successor that capitalistic policies were acceptable if they helped China. "You couldn’t anticipate that."

It was surprising to hear Obama, normally more restrained in how he discusses the Iran nuclear deal, refer to it, however cautiously, as a moment when the arc of history might curve.

It was one of several interesting moments during an intimate 90-minute meeting Obama held with 10 journalists in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Wednesday. What follows is a description of that conversation and what it reveals about how the president sees the nuclear deal and the larger problems of the Middle East, as well as the opposition to the deal, a subject he returned to frequently and at times with a visceral frustration that seemed to verge on disgust.

But Obama's primary message was one of certainty. That the meeting was on the record — such gatherings, a routine event at the White House, are normally off the record — spoke to this, as did his easy manner and his eagerness to discuss fine-grained details of the deal, as well as criticisms.

"Of all the foreign policy issues that I've addressed since I've been president," he said, "I've never been more certain that this is sound policy, that it's the right thing to do for the United States, that it's the right thing to do for our allies."

I. "A possibility for change"

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif shake hands in Geneva this January. (RICK WILKING/AFP/Getty)

Since world powers had reached the agreement on limiting Iran's nuclear program, three weeks earlier in Vienna, Obama has calibrated his remarks on the deal to a narrow political mission: Get it enough support to get past Congress. That has meant emphasizing only ways in which the deal will serve US (and Israeli) security interests to limit Iran's nuclear program, and downplaying everything else.

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China's transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran's regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon's historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China's under Deng, opportunities like Nixon's trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find "openings" for such moments.

He cited his 2012 trip to Myanmar — the first ever by a sitting president, and part of his effort to reopen the dictatorship to the world — and his detente with Cuba.

With regards to Myanmar, also known as Burma, "we still don’t know yet how that experiment plays itself out," he said. In listing Myanmar's reforms since his trip, he mistakenly referred to dissident Aung San Suu Kyi running for president — in fact, the regime has barred her from running — before realizing his error and correcting himself. It was an unintentionally revealing comment, hinting at the ways that reforms can reverse and "openings" can close.

"We don’t know whether it’s going to get over the hump and suddenly Burma is completely transformed, or whether it retrenches as the generals in that country get scared about losing their privileges and prerogatives," he went on. "But what we’ve done is we’ve created a possibility for change."

His point seemed to be that he could imagine such a possibility for an opening in Iran as well, though the results were uncertain. He said of Iran's future, echoing his point about Myanmar, "We don’t know how it’s going to play itself out."

From there, Obama drifted back to discussing what he had brought us to the White House to discuss, which was his case for the Iran nuclear deal, which meant reasserting, as he had many times before, that the deal did not assume Iran's good behavior on nuclear issues but rather that it was a means for enforcing it.

He was careful at all times not to premise the deal on Iran's good intentions, much less the country undergoing any sort of transformation. Still, in that unguarded moment, he seemed to suggest a hope that the deal could help create "a possibility for change" all the same.

II. The question Obama didn't want to answer

Chuck Schumer, a senior Senate Democrat who has come out against the Iran deal, speaks to reporters (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Several times, Obama was asked — and resisted answering — a simple question: What is his plan if the deal falls apart?

Congress, for example, could block the deal, something that looked more possible by Friday, when Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer announced he would oppose it. Yet while Obama was eager to talk about why killing the deal would be bad, all the ways that it would allow Iran's nuclear program to proceed and set back US foreign policy, he refused to say what he would do if that happened. At one point, when one of the journalists present began asking about his plan B, Obama cut him off, joking that he wanted to save the journalist from wasting his question.

Politically, it's understandable that he'd refuse to answer: if he says he has no Plan B, he would look foolish, but if he says he has a good plan B, he would make it easier for Republicans to justify killing the deal. Yet it's an important question.

The closest he got to providing an answer was when he was challenged on whether the only alternative to the deal was really war, as he's frequently asserted. He did not describe a clear plan B, but he did rule out a number of options.

"I do not say that a military option is inevitable just to be provocative, just to win the argument. Those are the dictates of cold, hard logic," he said.

If Congress killed the deal, "doubling down on unilateral sanctions" against Iran would not be enough, he said, to get another deal. And he was "quite certain" that it would not be possible to "force our P5+1 partners [the world powers that are party to the nuclear deal] or other countries, like India or South Korea or even Japan" to go along with Congress's demand to set a new, higher bar for what the nuclear deal has to accomplish.

If that happens, he said, "we’ve sort of run out of options at that point. ... At minimum, what we’ve done is we’ve put Iran in the driver’s seat." In one scenario, he said, Iran could pull out of the deal and resume its nuclear development immediately: "The scenario that everybody talks about happening 15 years from now happens six, nine, 12 months from now."

In another scenario, Iran would declare its intention to abide by the deal. Sanctions would fall away, Russia and China would exploit the opening to hijack the process, and the US would possibly, he said, be excluded from the inspections regime and enforcement systems set up by the deal. In other words, the US would get shut out of the very process of monitoring Iran's behavior that it had set up.

"In that scenario, then, Iran is going to get some of that sanction relief anyway, and our credibility in terms of now being able to exercise any influence on how the Security Council thinks about this thing has been completely eroded," he said. "I’d have to talk to the lawyers as to what standing we would even have, since Congress would have rejected this deal, for us to be a party to it, in which case we’re not in the room, potentially."

Any of these, he said, would make it easier for Iran to grow its nuclear program and harder for the US to do anything about it: "In almost every scenario, our ability to monitor what’s happening in Iran, our ability to ensure that they are not breaking out, our ability to inspect their facilities, our ability to force them to abide by the deal has gone out the window."

Obama would not spell out what he planned to do in such a scenario, but he did say he would try to piece together a new sanctions coalition, though he was not optimistic about it. "Maybe it’s possible that for a certain period of time we can hang on to the Europeans — not certain; maybe. Maybe we can twist some arms to have some of our Asian allies hang on," he said.

A woman in Tehran walks past a poster of national founder and former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, left, and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

III. How Iran could kill the deal

There is another way the deal could fall apart: if it gets through Congress, and is actually implemented, but then Iran changes its mind and either overtly pulls out or cheats so egregiously that it effectively kills the deal.

Obama resisted this question as well. He argued that even the most pessimistic reading of the Iranian regime suggested they would pursue their self-interest first, and that the deal's stringent monitoring and enforcement mechanisms put abiding by the terms within Iran's self-interest.

"It is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their worldviews and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation," he said.

"It’s not necessary for us to be optimistic in order for us to assess the value of this deal," he went on. "If you believe that Tehran will not change, and the latest version of the current Supreme Leader is in charge 10, 15 years from now, and [infamous commander of Iran's Qud Force Qassem] Soleimani is still running the show over at the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps], you’d still want this deal. In fact, you want this deal even more."

Still, Iran could kill the deal. It could happen. And what then?

Obama conceded this possibility when I asked him about Iran's internal politics: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is able to overrule hard-liners who oppose the deal in part because the Iranian public so fervently supports it. But that public support is premised on expectations that the deal will bring them a booming economy and geopolitical acceptance. I asked Obama: Do you worry that once those hopes inevitably crash against reality, public opinion could turn against the deal, empowering hard-liners who oppose the deal and may benefit personally from sanctions?

"Yes," he said, nodding. But even if that happens just a few months after imposing the deal's limitation, he argued, by that point Iran will have given up much of its nuclear infrastructure, mitigating any crisis this causes.

"We will have seen Iran’s stockpiles moving out," he said. "We will have seen Fordow emptied out. We will have seen [the plutonium plant at] Arak transformed. We will have seen two-thirds of the centrifuges in Natanz carted away. We will have installed inspectors up and down the nuclear chain.

"If there ends up being a shift inside of Iran, and the hard-liners are ascendant, and they decide that they don’t like the deal or want to renegotiate the deal or want to try to cheat in the deal, we’ll figure that out very quickly. And we will have purchased additional time and space, because the breakout times will have become much longer, to be able to snap back sanctions, rally the world community, and, if necessary, take other actions to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon."

And indeed, the deal is structured so that Iran surrenders the bulk of its nuclear program up front, making reneging much less attractive for the country. But as Obama acknowledged, the deal can't guarantee that Iran won't renege anyway.

IV. What Obama imagines a war with Iran would look like

A member of an Iraqi Shia militia, many of which are tied to Iran, in the Iraqi city of Basra (HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty)

A member of an Iraqi Shia militia, many of which are tied to Iran, in the Iraqi city of Basra. (HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty)

In his comment that the US could "take other action" if Iran cheats, Obama was referring to a range of unilateral American options, but at the furthest end of the menu is the last resort: military action.

One of the points of skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal is that should Iran break its commitments to such a point that even snapping back old sanctions and imposing new ones does not deter the country's rush to a bomb, would President Obama really follow through on his threat of military action? Would he really bomb Iran if all other options were exhausted?

The true answer to this question is unknowable, and indeed even Obama himself may never know for sure unless it happens, although everyone in Washington seems to have an opinion on it.

I have shared this skepticism. Obama frequently challenges skeptics by pointing out that he has already bombed an awful lot of countries in his presidency. But those cases — the wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan, or strikes against crumbling regimes such as Libya's or non-state actors such as al-Qaeda — seem categorically different than launching an overt war against a country with a large and seasoned military.

Our conversation on Wednesday left me more skeptical. Obama, in addressing criticisms of the deal, returned repeatedly to the idea that what these critics actually want is to back the United States into a war with Iran. And the way he talked about such a war suggested he sees any US military strikes on Iran as likely to escalate into a conflict that would be horrific and costly, perhaps beyond what he would be willing to accept.

"Everybody around this table knows that within six months or nine months — I don’t know how long it would take — of Iran having pulled out of this deal, or cheated on this deal, or interpreted the deal in a way that was deemed contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the deal, that some of the same voices who were opposed to the deal would insist that the only way to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to take strikes," he said. "And it will be framed as limited military strikes, and it will be suggested that Iran will not respond, but we will have entered into a war."

When Obama described what would happen after those strikes, his face became visibly pained at even imagining the consequences. He argued the negative effects on the US would reach beyond Iran's borders.

"That doesn’t mean that Iran suddenly attacks us directly," he suggested. "It does mean that I’ve got a whole bunch of US troops on the ground trying to help Baghdad fight ISIL, and they’re now looking over their shoulders with a host of Shia militia," he said, referring to the heavily armed Iraqi militias who are currently fighting ISIS but are often sponsored by Iran.

"It does mean that Hezbollah potentially makes use of some of those rockets [pointed at] Israel, which then precipitates us having to take action," he said, referring to the Iran-sponsored Lebanese militant group. "It does mean that the Strait of Hormuz suddenly becomes a live theater in which one member of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards], or Quds Force, or Mr. Soleimani directs a suicide speedboat crashing into one of our naval ships, in which case I think it’s fair to say that the commander in chief of the United States will be called upon to respond."

Everything he described is plausible: Iran might indeed retaliate against US strikes, and that could lead to a chain of escalations that pulls us into a full-on war against a country much larger than Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obama's case against US strikes on Iran is a good one. Yet it is a case that would seem to apply not just to countering Republican hawks who want to bomb Iran now, but also to his own stated last-resort policy of striking Iran.

This is not to argue that a war with Iran would be good and that Obama should embrace it with open arms; quite the contrary. But one of the pillars of the nuclear deal, in terms of how the administration is selling it politically in Washington as well as convincing Iran to comply, is that the US is ultimately willing to back it up with force if necessary.

If that is in fact all just a big bluff, that is a salient fact regardless of your views on whether Obama should see this threat through in a worst-case scenario.

V. How Obama thinks Obama has changed

(Mark Wilson/Getty)

(Alex Wong/Getty)

Since before he was president, Obama has maintained a broadly consistent policy on Iran: He sees engagement and diplomacy as the best options for resolving disputes, and sees military strikes as a bad option.

But so much has changed in the years — nearly a decade — since he put forth that policy, somewhat controversially, during the Democratic primary. And he has gone from a junior senator with little real foreign policy experience to someone with several years experience running US foreign policy. What had he learned? What had changed?

"After six and a half years, I am that much more confident in the assessments I make, and can probably see around the corners faster than I did when I first came into office," he said. "The map isn’t always the territory, and you have to kind of walk through it to get a feel for it."

His assessment was, unsurprisingly, more than a bit self-serving, clearly calibrated so as to bolster his case for the Iran nuclear deal. But if you read between the lines, you can see some hints of actual reflection, especially on his administration's disastrous failure in Libya:

In terms of decisions I make, I do think that I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences. And I am confirmed in my belief that much of the time, we are making judgments based on percentages, and no decision we make in foreign policy — or for that matter, any policy — is completely without hair on it, which is how we kind of describe it. I mean, there are always going to be some complications. But that’s why, when I say that this to me is not a close call, I say that based on having made a lot of tough calls.

So if you look at Libya, I was deeply concerned about what would happen after [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi was gone. I was deeply concerned about the ability of some of our European partners who were forward-leaning on that issue to sustain their efforts. We organized the campaign in such a way that I could guarantee they had to step up, and it wasn’t just riding on our coattails to get it done, and that there was broad international support.

And to this day, I would say that, had we not gone after Gadhafi, you’d have some version of what happened in Syria in Libya, because he had already lost control of big chunks of the country. But even factoring all that stuff in, Libya is still a mess right now.

And so maybe at the same time as I’m more confident today, I’m also more humble. And that’s part of the reason why when I see a situation like this one, where we can achieve an objective with a unified world behind us, and we preserve our hedge against it not working out, I think it would be foolish — even tragic — for us to pass up on that opportunity.

That last point, circling back to Iran, is a perhaps appropriately modest way of talking about the nuclear deal as a way to "achieve an objective."

Even many arms control and nonproliferation experts who enthusiastically support the deal, after all, caution that while it will be very effective at verifiably limiting Iran's nuclear program and providing mechanisms to enforce those limitations, it will not do very much else. It will not solve Iran's proxy conflicts and arms race with its neighbors. It will not solve the tension and distrust between Iran and the US, which in the very recent past has included fighting a proxy conflict in Iraq, and could very well include proxy conflict again.

It is difficult to look at the black-and-white text of the deal — in other words, the centrifuge counts and inspection regimes — and see signs of any "opening," of "a possibility for change" of the sort that Obama had hinted at in the conversation. He was careful not to say that we should expect anything of the sort, and instead argued that this is all just a means to "achieve an objective" and nothing more. But the glimmer of hope that this might someday be remembered as something like his Nixon in China moment was clearly there.

I would be awfully surprised if that happened — arms control treaties don't typically bend the arc of history — but this close to the end of his tenure, you could see the paragraphs of his autobiography already forming in his mind.

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