President Obama was in a reflective mood when he met with a group of journalists at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after he delivered a combative speech defending the Iran deal. He is, in private meetings, a congenial stoic, even as he chews Nicorette gum to stay ahead of an old vice. But his frustration—that the bigger message of his foreign policy is being lost in the political furies over Iran—was conspicuous. He made clear that the proposed deal—the most ambitious foreign-policy initiative of his Presidency—is less about Iran than about getting America off its war track; Obama believes that Washington, almost by default, too often unwisely deploys the military as the quickest solution to international crises.
Obama makes many of his pitches in the Roosevelt Room, a modest, windowless chamber with a conference table. When the West Wing was built, in 1902, it was originally the President’s office. A portrait of Franklin Roosevelt is on one wall; a picture of Teddy Roosevelt, as a Rough Rider on horseback, hangs over the fireplace. The most striking piece in the room is the smallest: The 1906 Nobel Prize, the first won by an American and the first by a U.S. President, is encased behind glass. It went to Teddy Roosevelt for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. Only two other Presidents–Woodrow Wilson, for the League of Nations, and Jimmy Carter, after leaving office, for promoting human rights—had won it before Obama was named, just months after his election, more for his spirit than any specific achievement. As he enters the final eighteen months of his Presidency, he seems to want to prove that he deserves it.
Perhaps it’s the professor in him, but Obama can’t seem to understand why some Americans now interpret diplomacy as weakness, especially given the nation’s recent experience in conflict. In the Roosevelt Room, he said, “We underestimate our power when we restrict it to just our military power. We shortchange our influence and our ability to shape events when that’s the only tool we think we have in the toolbox.”
After six and a half years in office, Obama said that the tough calls—to redeploy American troops to Iraq or to mobilize NATO to launch airstrikes against Libya—have convinced him more than ever of the need to make force a last resort. “In terms of decisions I make, I do think that I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences,” he said. “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, which is how we kind of describe it. … There’s always going to be some complications.”
The President leaned back in a leather chair pulled up to the center of the table. “So maybe at the same time as I’m more confident today, I’m also more humble,” he said. “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.”
He noted that his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans, had successfully used diplomacy to prevent nuclear proliferation. “Both President Kennedy and President Reagan were roundly criticized by parts of the foreign-policy establishment that felt they were being weak by engaging our adversaries,” he told us. “So some of it is built into a political lexicon that makes you sound tougher if you don’t talk to somebody, and, rather, very loudly, wield a big stick. I also think that there is a particular mind-set that was on display in the run-up to the Iraq War that continues to this day. Some of the folks who were involved in that decision either don’t remember what they said or are entirely unapologetic about the results.”
Compared to historic pacts, such as the SALT and START treaties brokered with the Soviet Union, Obama views the Iran deal as one of the best arms agreements in half a century. “In past agreements of this sort—of this magnitude, at least—we typically had to give something up,” he said. “We were having to constrain ourselves in significant ways. In that sense, there was greater risk. In this situation, we do not surrender our capabilities to break the glass and respond if, in fact, Iran proves unable or unwilling to meet its commitments.”
Obama was unapologetic about dealing with the Islamic Republic, which is held responsible—directly or indirectly—for the deaths of thousands of Americans. Three Iranian-Americans are still detained in Iran; a former F.B.I. agent disappeared on an Iranian island in 2007. The Administration is not counting on the possibility that a deal over Iran’s nuclear program will alter Iran’s politics—or produce détente.
“There is nothing in this deal that is dependent on a transformation of the character of the Iranian regime,” Obama said. “This does not represent a strategic rapprochement between the United States and Iran. This is a hardheaded, clear-eyed, calculated decision to take—to seize our best opportunity to lock down the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.”
Obama said that he took Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in power a quarter century, at his word, especially on Israel. “His ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would,” the President said. Even so, he went on, “It is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their world views and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation. And what we’ve seen, at least since 1979, is Iran making constant, calculated decisions that allow it to preserve the regime, to expand their influence where they can, to be opportunistic, to create what they view as hedges against potential Israeli attack, in the form of Hezbollah and other proxies in the region.”
The President also warned Congress that, if it rejected the deal, the biggest winners in Tehran would be the most hard-line factions.
I asked the President how the ongoing chants of “Death to America” by Iranian crowds influenced his thinking during the twenty months of difficult negotiations. “It’s not appealing to deal with countries that express hatred towards us. It wasn’t easy to negotiate arms agreements with a near military peer”—the Soviet Union—“that could blow up every American city,” he said. “But, when it comes to arms-control agreements, or nonproliferation agreements of any magnitude, by definition you’re generally dealing with those folks. I don’t have to negotiate an arms agreement with Great Britain or with France.”
China, he noted, still uses highly offensive rhetoric about the United States “on an ongoing basis” in its state-controlled media. “But nobody suggests that that’s not a relationship in which we have to talk and try to resolve conflicts,” Obama said. “The same is true, obviously, with Russia—particularly now, under Putin.”
Obama compared Iran’s rhetoric to schoolyard taunts. “Part of the underlying premise of why people don’t feel we should have to put up with that stuff is we’re bigger; if we launch a military strike, we can wipe them out. There is a little bit of that schoolyard attitude of, it’s one thing for a guy your own size to mouth off to you. But if there’s a little guy, you should just smack him around. And it’s probably bad advice in the schoolyard. It’s certainly not a good way to run a foreign policy.”
September will be a decisive month for Obama’s policy ambitions. Congress is due to vote no later than September 17th on whether to approve the deal. If Republicans pass a Resolution of Disapproval, the President would then have to veto it, and it would go back to the Hill for a second vote. To prevent an override, the White House would need to win support from more than a third of either the House or the Senate.* The timing is tight. Obama is also scheduled to speak at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 28th, the same day as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It would be highly embarrassing for a President to go before the United Nations while still struggling to win approval. Obama said that he expects to win the vote: “Eventually. I’m less concerned about the point spread. I’m more concerned about getting it done.”
The Administration would like to use the gathering of world leaders to explore how to build on the coöperative precedent established when the six major powers negotiated with Iran, and apply it to other flashpoints. He acknowledged that Vladimir Putin called him last month to explore the possibility of new diplomacy, particularly regarding Syria. The Russians were key collaborators in the Iran negotiations, despite tensions with Washington over Ukraine.
“I do think the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria,” Obama said. “Partly because both Russia and Iran, I think, recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad. Neither of those patrons are particularly sentimental. They don’t seem concerned about the humanitarian disaster that’s been wrought by Assad and this conflict over the last several years. But they are concerned about the potential collapse of the Syrian state. And that means, I think, the prospect of more serious discussions than we’ve had in the past.”
He added, “How to execute an actual transition is very difficult. The strongest opposition forces on the ground are vicious terrorist organizations that are constantly merging and blending with people who just want to get the yoke of an oppressive regime off their backs. And being able to sort through what a representative government would look like—one that would give Sunnis inside of Syria a sense of their rightful place at the table, while preserving protections for Alawite and Druze and Christians after so much bloodshed—is going to be tough. And just because Iran and Syria may recognize Assad’s weaknesses doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad recognizes his weaknesses.” Obama warned against expecting a breakthrough anytime soon. “But I think the conversations are more serious now than they might have been earlier,” he said.
And Iran will have to be part of the solution. “There’s no way to resolve Syria without Iran being involved, given its financing of Assad and the fact that Hezbollah is probably the most effective fighting force that Assad can count on.”
I asked him if the United Nations might be a venue for his first face-to-face meeting with President Rouhani. For years, successive American and Iranian Presidents have devised elaborate strategies to avoid each other in New York.
“I won’t speculate,” Obama said. “Because that’s not just a decision we make. Obviously, Tehran has its own hard-liners and its own politics. And one of the interesting things throughout this debate, before we announced that an agreement had finally been reached, was the degree to which some of our critics here who said the Iranian regime is unreliable, sneaky, and can’t be negotiated with would consistently point to statements made by the Supreme Leader or whatever character in the Iranian parliament, and take that as gospel, not thinking about the fact that they may be politicians, have their own political imperatives. And that will continue to be the case even after the deal is signed.”
As the President rose to leave, I tossed out another, final question. “Which is tougher—Obamacare or the Iran deal?”
He chuckled. “Nothing is easy in this town,” he said. “But it’s all worthwhile.”