In 2009, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided that the Nobel Peace Prize was to be awarded to U.S. President Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, and within the first year of his election as the American President, no one, not even the recipient himself, thought that he deserved it. “There was a sense of surprise and even shock,… a belief that the award was premature, a disservice and a political liability,” said a Washington Postcommentator. The Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, himself, denied the charitable suggestion that the award was in anticipation of Mr. Obama living up to his promise. “We have not given the prize for what may happen in the future. We are awarding Obama for what he has done in the past year,” he said.
Among the accomplishments of the Nobel Laureate which were enumerated by the Nobel Committee were his Cairo speech to reach out to the Muslim world, and his Prague speech, which announced his commitment to a nuclear weapon-free world and his initiatives on climate change. But none of these will match his recent, path-breaking moves towards Myanmar, Cuba and Iran. All American soldiers have not come home from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, but the image of the United States today is of a restrained and reasonable power, and not of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Mr. Obama is now looking more like a Nobel Laureate than he did in 2009.
The lifting of sanctions against Myanmar even before democracy was restored was a concession to the military junta there. The dramatic handshake and subsequent meeting with President Raúl Castro of Cuba in Panama, recently, is indeed historic. On Iran, Mr. Obama is taking major risks, having to battle not only with Iran, but also with Israel, Saudi Arabia and his own Congress. No other American President has taken so many initiatives with global implications in a short time. All the deals are not done, but each of these could lead to the ending of some festering conflicts and to greater economic benefits to the U.S. and others.
Mr. Obama seems to have come to realise what Winston Churchill knew a long time ago: “To jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.” The new Obama doctrine is that engagement combined with addressing core needs is more useful than sanctions. Breaking isolationist policies for strategic advantage is the new approach of the Obama administration. With its immense power and resources, the U.S. can afford to take some calculated risks. It can also retrace its steps if its partners fail to abide by their commitments or adopt inimical postures. Increasing strategic depth by making concessions even while keeping options open is a refreshingly novel idea that Mr. Obama has put in place.
Iran nuclear deal
Among his new initiatives, striking a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme has been the riskiest. Given the nature of the Iranian regime and the volatility of its neighbourhood, there is no guarantee that the deal will be implemented. The Iran nuclear deal is still a framework and there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Mr. Obama himself admits that the deal is fraught with risks for the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. The fact sheets and statements by the two sides are contradictory and the chances of reconciling them before the end of June this year are by no means assured.
Something most fundamental to the framework like the period for which the restrictions imposed by the agreement will last is still unclear. The U.S. mentions 15 years, while the Iranian figure is 10 years. The provision relating to the shipping out of low-enriched uranium, leaving only 300 to 500 kg on Iran’s soil, and even about the destination of the shipment, are vague. Some years ago, Brazil had worked out a similar arrangement, which was disowned by both the U.S. and Iran. It is also not clear how Iran would be prevented from reconverting any remaining enriched uranium. Converting the facility in Fordow into a research laboratory was a painful decision for Iran. But, with the infrastructure preserved there, the temptation to go back to its original mission will remain.
The monitoring mechanism will be the hardest nut to crack when the deal is finalised. The deep distrust between the two countries will not disappear in a hurry and the intrusive monitoring, which goes beyond the provisions of the Additional Protocol that Iran had accepted a long time ago, will be hard to put in place. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports are replete with instances of its inspectors being turned away from sensitive installations. The devil in the details of the monitoring mechanism will raise its head throughout the period of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. The selling point of the deal for the Iranians is that the nuclear infrastructure will remain intact and that the “break out” period for Iran, now two months, has been extended only to one year for the next 15 years. Iran will zealously guard this capability, with its attendant effects on monitoring.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s accusations recently, about the Obama administration “lying and having deceptive and devilish intentions” may be to toughen Iran’s bargaining position in the next two months, but his insistence that all sanctions must be lifted as soon as the agreement is signed is most unrealistic.
Mr. Obama will not be in a position to give any such guarantee, given the position of the Congress. Moreover, there is no intention on his part to remove the sanctions relating to human rights and terrorism. Since Iran’s sole motivation for the deal is to get the crippling sanctions lifted, this may well be the biggest hurdle in its finalisation and implementation.
A reconnection with Cuba
The U.S. has nothing to lose by normalising relations with Cuba. Cuban immigrants in the U.S., who want to see the Cuban regime crushed, drove American policy so far. The Cuba policy had isolated the U.S. in its own backyard. By winning Cuba back, the U.S. may win back some of its lost influence in Latin America. Congressmen of Cuban origin were the greatest proponents of the blockade because of their personal animosity towards Fidel Castro. Cuba has not been a threat to the U.S. for quite sometime. Even the U.S.’s allies were not with it in the case of the Cuban blockade. Cuban cigars and rum came to the U.S. through other countries. In fact, Cuba had maintained contact with the U.S. at fairly high levels through its ‘Cuban Interests Section’ in the Swiss Embassy in Washington to deal basically with the Cuban immigrants. Some Cuban diplomats were products of Ivy League universities and spoke American English like natives. Normalisation of relations with Cuba was long overdue and it is likely to succeed sooner than the two sides seem to expect in their statements in Panama.
Calculated risk on Myanmar
The U.S.’s decision to make up with the junta in Myanmar may appear insignificant, but given the special position of China in Myanmar, it was a calculated risk. In the short term, Myanmar has brought economic benefits for the U.S. and Myanmar’s own desire to diversify its international relations has presented a window of opportunity. The risk is that the junta may not change its colour and the U.S. may be compelled to reverse its policy in Myanmar.
The new Obama Doctrine has already brought in changes, considered unlikely even a few months ago. Nobel Peace prizes have been awarded in the past for less spectacular successes in foreign policy. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in 2009 may have been premature, but today, the decision of the Nobel committee appears vindicated.
(T.P. Sreenivasan was the Governor for India of the IAEA from 2001 to 2004. He is the Director General of the Kerala International Centre and the executive head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council.)