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Obama Marks Diplomatic Milestones with Iran, Cuba

Posted July 21st, 2015 at 12:25 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

Two milestones occurred in U.S. foreign policy Monday that will cement President Barack Obama’s legacy and put the United States back in step with the vast majority of international opinion.

At the State Department, the flag of Cuba was quietly inserted between Croatia and the Czech Republic as the U.S. and the island nation only 90 miles away restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the 15-member Security Council voted unanimously to approve the landmark nuclear agreement reached with Iran last week.

Critics of Obama’s foreign policy wanted the United States to remain an outlier when it comes to dealing with both regimes. But decades of U.S. ostracism have not turned either country into a Jeffersonian democracy or stopped the Iranian nuclear program. Engagement offers the prospect of economic progress for both and more breathing space for cultural and political evolution.

Cuba was a relatively easy call for Obama because the U.S. domestic politics about the country have changed. Younger Cuban Americans are no longer consumed by hatred of the Castro regime for depriving them of family holdings and upending Cuba’s social order.

The U.S. embargo lingers but the Obama administration is managing to gut it through executive orders. Hordes of American tourists are already finding ways to visit the island and Secretary of State John Kerry will join them on Aug. 14 to raise the U.S. flag over the embassy on the storied Havana waterfront.

Iran is more fraught because of its greater strategic importance and its more volatile neighborhood. Of particular concern is its continuing opposition to Israel and support for militant groups on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

The chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” that rang out at government-organized demonstrations after the July 14 nuclear accord reflect Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s attempt to triangulate the anti-U.S. tenets of the Islamic revolution with the past 20 months of intense direct bilateral negotiations between Iran and “the Great Satan.”

Two thirds of Iranians, however, were born after the 1979 revolution and many have no use for its xenophobic slogans or interventionist foreign policy. Many also chafe at the cultural restrictions imposed by the state and, in the words of Iranian-American author Azadeh Moaveni, choose to live “as if” those rules and regulations do not exist.

The Supreme Leader accepted the nuclear deal in part because a sanctions-stifled Iranian public demanded it. The government will feel pressure to put much of the revenue the deal will unlock into improving the economy and fostering jobs for Iran’s well-qualified university graduates.

European and other foreign companies will be the first to resume normal trade with Iran.  American companies will lag because of yet another U.S. embargo – this one imposed 20 years ago by the Clinton administration. But the Obama administration has promised carve-outs for commercial airliner sales, while food, medicine and medical devices have long been exempt from sanctions. Venture capitalists are also looking with interest at Iran’s start-up culture and proficiency in high tech.

Formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran — broken in 1980 while Iran held U.S. diplomats hostage — are a ways off and may have to await the death of Khamenei and others from the revolution’s first generation.

The Obama administration will be busy enough for the next 18 months implementing the complex nuclear agreement and trying to keep Congress – and the next president — from sabotaging the deal. While most domestic U.S. reaction has been highly partisan, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush suggested more flexibility by saying that if elected president, he would not cancel the agreement on “day one.”

Other opponents of the steps taken toward Cuba and Iran assert that they are a “reward” for “bad behavior.” But diplomacy is not a reward; it is a tool to learn about and influence others. As former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once told me, “diplomacy is the art of letting the other guy have our way.”

Multilateralism is also a dirty word for those who view the United States as an exceptional country that is entitled, indeed obligated, to often go its own way. But the U.S. is most successful when it is leading an international coalition.

It was gratifying on Monday to hear all the members of the U.N. Security Council – including the five veto-holding nations that are often at odds — praise the Iran deal. “Persistent multilateral pressure” led to the agreement, noted U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. “When our nations truly unite to confront global crises, our impact grows exponentially.”

President Obama has now presided over historic shifts toward three adversarial nations – Myanmar, Cuba and Iran. He recently welcomed the leader of a fourth former foe – Vietnam – to the Oval Office.

Forty years ago, the last American troops boarded helicopters in panic from the rooftops of Saigon in the wake of the Communist victory there. Now the city is a hub of private enterprise and youthful energy among a population too young to remember those traumatic days.

America’s post World War II history is replete with military interventions that devastated nations and maimed and killed millions of people, including tens of thousands of U.S. troops. In forging diplomatic solutions to chronic foreign policy problems, the Obama administration has shown that there is a better way.

(Barbara Slavin is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington Correspondent for, a website devoted to news from and about the Middle East. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007), she is a regular commentator on US foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN.)


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