It is quite possible that, by the time Obama leaves office, no other country on Earth will have gained quite so much as Iran. Not all of this will be the doing of the United States, of course, and in fact some of it may prove to be the undoing of our interests in the long run. But there is no doubting that some of the remarkable gains that seem to be on the near horizon for Tehran will have come as a result of a policy impulse that was far closer to the heart of the president than is the on-again, off-again Asia initiative (which was really much more the product of the ideas and efforts of a bunch of his first-term aides and cabinet members than it was of his own impulses or those of his innermost circle).
Consider the gains. First, there’s the issue of legacy. With negotiations continuing at a high simmer behind the scenes, the Obama foreign-policy team sees a nuclear deal with Iran as the one remaining brass ring that is there for them to claim. Elsewhere, there is the possibility of some progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but promotional rhetoric surrounding it aside, it’s just not as big a game-changer as its proponents suggest. It’d certainly be a welcome development, but it’s incremental and, of course, doesn’t really improve our relations with Asia’s biggest long-term players, China and India. And beyond that, there’s not much else in the pipeline.
A deal with Iran, if it could be translated into action, would in theory produce a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. That would certainly be a good thing. But it provides no guarantee that Tehran could not reverse course in the future, break its terms, or do as it has done for the past 30 years — namely, stir up mayhem in the region without the benefit of nuclear weapons. What it would provide — even in the midst of a congressional tug of war over Iran policy, with new sanctions coming from the Hill and presidential vetoes pinging and ponging up and down Pennsylvania Avenue — would be some White House-directed relief for Tehran. Presumably, a nuclear deal would further the thaw in the relations between the United States and Iran, while providing a great incentive for other countries to resume normal trading relations (to the extent they don’t have them already).