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Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture

Last update - Sunday, December 15, 2013, 18:14 By Charles Laffiteau

While even President Obama’s most ardent supporters would be hard pressed to characterize 2013 as a year of great achievements, at the same time I wouldn’t be surprised if historians one day conclude that it contained some of his most significant accomplishments. Yet no matter what the history books will say, the first year of his second term has certainly been full of challenges testing both his patience and his resolve.

During his first term, President Obama succeeded in preventing a meltdown of the US economy, providing healthcare to uninsured Americans and pulling American troops out of Iraq. So following his inauguration for a second term, it came as no surprise when the president said that gun control, climate change and comprehensive immigration reform would be at the top of his legislative agenda. What he didn’t say, however, was that his second term’s top priority would really be solidifying his first-term accomplishments.
No matter what else happens during his remaining three years in office, Obama’s political legacy as a competent and successful president will ultimately be determined by his ability to solidify his first term achievements. That means completing the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, successfully implementing the new healthcare law, nurturing America’s economic recovery and reducing unemployment. But given the recent roll-out problems, I think making sure that his healthcare reforms are working smoothly is his top priority for now.
On the international relations front, killing Osama bin Laden and extricating America from two costly foreign wars will always be regarded as Obama’s signature accomplishments. But despite his first-term overtures to the Muslim world, he has had no success brokering a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. However, I also contend that the recent nuclear deal with Iran represents the first concrete steps America has taken in more than a decade towards reducing, rather than inflaming, tensions in the Middle East.
If the six-month interim agreement with Iran eventually leads to a more comprehensive pact that halts Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, I think historians will also regard President Obama as more than worthy of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Many seem to have forgotten that he won the prize primarily because of his promotion of nuclear non-proliferation, and that fostering a new climate in international relations by reaching out to Muslim nations was only a secondary consideration.
As I mentioned before, President Obama took some major political risks by authorising a series of top-secret face-to-face talks between American and Iranian officials. Secrecy was vital because Obama knew he would face a firestorm of criticism from Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, as well as Republicans and Israel-friendly Democrats in US Congress if word got out. Apart from the president himself, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, fewer than a dozen US officials even knew about the high-level negotiations taking place in Oman.
Immediately after his first inauguration in 2009, President Obama had initiated outreach efforts designed to open diplomatic channels between the United States and Iran. But the Iranians were already involved in the E3+3 talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK, and didn’t want to have bilateral talks with their American counterparts in Geneva in fear of the media reaction. But after Obama’s re-election, Sultan Qaboos of Oman offered to mediate talks with Iran in his country’s capital Muscat.
Since it’s virtually impossible to keep the US President, Vice President and Secretary of State’s schedule under wraps, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser and five other aides were charged with conducting the talks with Iranian officials in Oman. To avoid alerting the media, US Air Force cargo planes were used to transport Burns, Sullivan and the other officials to the Muscat meetings via Oman’s Seeb International Airport and Masirah Air Base, both routinely used by the US military.
The objective of the first meetings in March was to determine the possibility of bilateral talks with Iran on nuclear proliferation, as well as a range of other issues including Syria. But the negotiations that led to the nuclear pact began in August, after Hassan Rouhani was elected President of Iran. After three rounds of secret talks, chief US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman attended the final round in October, at which the November deal was agreed. Funnily enough, even though Burns and Sullivan were at the formal talks in Geneva last month when the nuclear pact was announced, their names did not appear on any of the official delegate lists.
If this interim deal collapses and Iran develops a nuclear weapon, then President Obama’s gamble will be regarded as a foreign policy failure by friends and foes alike. But if it leads to an agreement that prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons, it could ease Israeli fears and have a positive influence on the Middle East peace process. As such, the secret talks Obama authorised with Iran just might end up being his crowning foreign policy achievement.

Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas who is pursuing a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011.

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