The Long Game: Why the Extension of Nuclear Talks With Iran is a Good Thing

Somewhere, Harry Truman is smiling. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced an extension of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). This interim accord, reached in late 2013, provided Tehran with modest sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze and rolling back of Iran’s nuclear program. American—and global—efforts continue to be focused on a long-term agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and the new deadline represents significant opportunity for a diplomatic victory. President Truman, however, would smile at this diplomatic settlement, because he would appreciate President Obama’s dilemma.

Simply put, President Obama cannot abide a nuclear-armed Iran. At the same time, Obama, like Truman before him, confronts a complicated world with many moving parts. Consequently, he, similar to Truman, is forced to balance the short, medium, and long games. 

The Short Game

A nuclear Iran threatens the entire Middle East from no matter where you’re sitting. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s departure reduced the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating from Tehran, but Tel Aviv and Riyadh remain firmly convinced that a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat. The Sunni world, along with Israel, will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Therefore, the president’s short game (i.e. highest priority) was to slow Iran’s nuclear progress and forestall a conflict that could metastasize into a wider holy war aided and abetted by Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Truman encountered perhaps an even more dire threat: Joseph Stalin’s designs on Western Europe. To avoid an unpopular and bloody conflict in the wake of World War II, Truman opted for the short game of the Marshall Plan. This policy precluded economic collapse, engendered Western cooperation, and maintained a tenuous status quo. Obama’s short game has yielded similar diplomatic fruit: great power cooperation. In a sight rarely seen, Germany, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and the United States have collaborated on a common goal. Employing economic sticks and dangling diplomatic carrots, the P5+1 has dragged Tehran—at times kicking and screaming—toward an extraordinary agreement. 

The Middle Game

Successful in his short game, the president has turned to a middle game strategy to get a deal. A mix of nationalism, legitimate security needs, hardheaded bargaining, and public opinion have pushed Tehran to hold fast to its nuclear program. Thus, Obama pinned his hopes on economic sanctions. The sanctions on the oil and banking industry have significantly curtailed Iranian economic growth. Thus, the regime has seen its domestic support sag even as many continue to support their nation’s “nuclear rights.”

Averting Western Europe’s financial collapse represented Truman’s first step. He followed the Marshall Plan with a collective security pact, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which guaranteed refuge from Soviet invasion or subterfuge. We are in the midst of Obama’s middle game. With the P5+1 holding together and sanctions slowly pinching and pushing Iran toward a deal, Obama hopes Tehran will cry “uncle.” Balancing the maintenance of economic pressure to keep Iran at the table with the need to provide limited relief as incentive to a cooperative attitude is the delicate middle game, and an extension is the key to reaching the end.

The Long Game

Obama’s long game relies upon the power of demography. Young, educated, and urban Iranians want economic prosperity, cultural freedom, and improved ties with the West—theirs is not a thirst for nuclear weapons. With sixty-percent of all Iranians under the age of thirty, the president believes with good reason that the Islamic Republic of Iran will either modernize or fall. Thus, a short and middle game that keeps Iran from a nuclear weapon actually buttresses the long game: Iran’s young people are not interested in a belligerent and counterproductive foreign policy.

Predictably, a small but potent caucus—including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) and every other 2016 GOP presidential hopeful—has quickly denounced the extension and talks. This is hardly new. During the early Cold War, conservative senators, led by Ohio’s John Bricker and South Dakota’s Karl Mundt, decried Truman’s long game of containment and called for rollback instead. The brilliance of Truman’s containment policy was that it relied upon demography. America won the Cold War not because we invaded the Soviet Union, but because we obstructed its advance until communism’s “internal contradictions” produced widespread revolt.

Currently, Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are channeling the rollback caucus sentiments of yesteryear. They are joined by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other establishment presidential contenders; this is an inevitable part of our politics. That said, a March 2014 letter from members of Congress to the President reveals the Hill’s center of gravity on the issue. An ideologically diverse collection of lawmakers, ranging from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) and Jack Reed (D-RI), aligned themselves with the “core principles we believe are consistent with your administration’s positions.”

Yesterday’s announcement was both significant and positive, yet no signal to spike the football. Not even close. Tehran could very well renege on its promises and pursue a nuclear weapon. If that situation occurs, the international community will have to act, and Iran will face the consequences.

Harry Truman knew that a rush to war was never the best option. President Obama knows this as well, and so do most members of Congress—despite some overly belligerent rhetoric. Yesterday’s extension of the nuclear negotiations is good news for the short, middle, and long game of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon; so long as America and the world stay united in pursuit of that goal, Truman will no doubt keep on smiling. 

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About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Bloodworth

Associate Professor of History at Gannon University, Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, Author of "Losing the Center: A History of American Liberalism" Views expressed are his own.