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Patient, cautious, multilateral: Obama breaks Iranian nuclear impasse

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announces the Iranian nuclear agreement with, from left, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Geneva on Sunday.


There will be no triumphal flight to a U.S. aircraft carrier, no "Mission Accomplished" banner, and President Barack Obama's miserable approval ratings, currently mired in the mishandling of health care, may not budge much.

But the breakthrough on Iran – albeit only a first step – is emblematic of Mr. Obama's cautious, patient, multilateral approach to international relations and signals a marked change in superpower leadership that may better suit a multipolar 21st century.

"We are witnessing what looks clearly like the beginning of the end of the Iranian nuclear weapons program," said Thomas Pickering, one of America's most seasoned diplomats, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents in key posts for four decades.

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"The skeptics who said that 'tough cases' could never be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction are being proven wrong – from Syria to Iran," Mr. Pickering added in a statement from the grassroots disarmament group Ground Zero. "Verifiable disarmament is happening based on multilateral leadership, hard-fought diplomacy and international pressure."

Those three elements have featured prominently in Mr. Obama's approach – and not just with Iran: He has enlisted Chinese help on North Korea and Russian intervention with Syria in ways not much explored by his predecessors.

The president who picked up a Nobel Peace Prize only weeks after moving into the Oval Office may, nearly five years later, finally be earning it – not with high-profile, high-stakes showdowns but with difficult and incremental diplomacy given credibility by concerted international action in the form of relentless and tightening sanctions, not threats of war.

Every American president since the Islamic Revolution and subsequent seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, which cost then-president Jimmy Carter his chance at a second term, has confronted Iran.

Some, like Ronald Reagan, both threatened Tehran and secretly sought to make back-door deals that backfired. Others, like George W. Bush, who lumped Iran in with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the neo-Stalinist dynasty in North Korea as the "Axis of Evil," veered from open hostility to covert co-operation.

But for decades Tehran and Washington remained mostly at loggerheads, locked in mutual hostility and suspicion.

Days after becoming president, Mr. Obama offered Iran an olive branch. "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us." A few months later he followed with a direct broadcast to all Iranians on the Persian new year of Nowruz.

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It was only a beginning, and the agreement that was announced on the weekend is far from the end. The President was careful to call it only a "first step."

But the Iran accord is a significant step that comes only months after a breakthrough – also with the help of other powers – that averted military action and resulted in Syria agreeing to relinquish its chemical weapons to the United Nations for destruction.

Predictably there were naysayers who denounced the deal, chief among them Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling, called the Iranian regime "a brutal and oppressive dictatorship that pursues nuclear weapons for the purpose of dominating the Middle East and threatening America and our allies, notably Israel."

More upbeat assessments came from key capitals. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, who played a crucial role in brokering the Syrian accord two months ago, paid tribute to the Geneva agreement as a "step toward solving one of the toughest global problems" and part of the long process of building a durable peace in the Middle East.

Even Saudi Arabia, Iran's bitter Arab adversary across the Persian Gulf, welcomed the deal, saying it could lead eventually "to the removal of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, from the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region" – apparently a reference to Israel, which is widely known to have nuclear weapons.

The deal will look like a terrible mistake if, a decade from now, Iran has joined Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and India in the group of nuclear-armed nations outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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But it may well turn out to be a historic turning point. "If the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran continues – a very big if – it could open new doors to the resolution of long-festering conflicts that have left the two countries on the opposite side of bloody divides in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even the Israeli-Palestinian issue," Michael Hirsh wrote Monday in the influential Washington weekly National Journal. Such a result, he added, could alter the strategic landscape "in a way not seen, perhaps, since President Nixon blindsided the Soviets by making friends with Communist China at the height of the Cold War."


Canada has so far refused to lift any of its sanctions against Iran until the Islamic regime fully abandons its nuclear weapons ambitions. Striking a harsher tone than its closest allies, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he is "deeply skeptical" of the deal signed with the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France.

"We think past actions best predict future actions, and Iran has defied the United Nations Security Council and defied the International Atomic Energy Agency," Mr. Baird said Sunday. "Simply put: Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt."

The tough talk is in keeping with the Conservative government's staunch support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But John Mundy, Canada's most recent ambassador to Iran, said Canada's position isn't substantively different from that of the U.S. and other allies, in spite of Mr. Baird's harsh rhetoric.

"While our tone toward Iran remains unnecessarily hostile, in substance our position on the interim agreement appears to be closer to the United States than Israel, who lost no time in denouncing it as a historic mistake," Mr. Mundy wrote Monday in a commentary piece for The Globe and Mail.

The problem is that Canada has no "functioning relationship" with Iran since it cut diplomatic ties and closed its embassy in Tehran last year, moves that hurt Iranian-Canadians, he said. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have found a way to re-engage with Iran, he added. "As our partners move forwards towards the implementation of the interim agreement, Canadians should begin asking our government why Canada can't re-engage with Iran ourselves." - Staff

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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