Was the Iran Deal a Victory For Realism?

The deal with Tehran could be a flash in the pan—or the start of something bigger.

Although 2016 just started, it will clearly go down in history as the year that saw the lifting of international sanctions against Iran. What happens next, however, is still unclear in many ways. How much oil will Iran deliver? What will be the Iran deal’s effect on the U.S. presidential elections? Will the bloodshed in Syria stop? How heavily were American-Israeli relations damaged? Is it the beginning of the end for ISIS? Who won? Who lost?

Among all these significant questions there is another, no less important: Does the Iran deal represent a change in American foreign policy thinking? Or, in other words, was this deal a mere flash of foreign policy realism after several decades of ideological dominance, or is a major change under way?

A unique feature of American foreign policy discourse is that, arguably since the birth of the republic, two approaches to the development and execution of foreign policy have been well represented. One approach is that of the realists, seeking to strictly base foreign policy on the need to protect clearly defined national interests, especially in security and trade. The other approach is that of the idealists, certain that the unique experience of American revolution and statehood provides for a foreign policy aimed at advancing the America’s values and ideology worldwide.

This debate was well represented in other Western countries and, later on, even in the young Soviet state. But in the United States, because of the origin and nature of the republic, this polemic began earlier on and was essential to foreign policy. During recent decades, it seemed that the viewpoint advocating the priority of democratic ideals and the need to support and spread them globally was dominant. American policy towards Iran was a case in point: after the Bush presidency’s “Axis of Evil,” President Obama continued to criticize the regime in Tehran, even after the Iran deal was reached. Of course, President Obama is as entitled to criticize or oppose a regime as any American president or, for that matter, any other head of state. But trouble arises when the United States needs to get a deal with that regime or, inversely, when the United States makes deals with a state that Washington accuses of terrorism and vows to oppose.

In these situations the United States either unnecessarily pokes a regime whose cooperation is essential to American foreign policy goals, or else it indulges in harmful, empty, bellicose rhetoric. In the latter case, the damage to public opinion is obvious, portraying Washington as either powerless or hypocritical. Iran policy therefore exemplifies a bigger problem for American diplomacy: how to balance narrow foreign policy goals with the idealistic rhetoric on which this policy is based? One can look at either Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address or the National Security Strategy of 2015 to be certain that under his administration the United States still sees itself as the chief power to “insist that governments uphold their human rights obligations, to speak out against repression wherever it occurs, and to work to prevent, and, if necessary, to respond to mass atrocities.” But policies based on this view are implemented not in a vacuum but within the whole framework of international relations, which are becoming more complicated with every year.

The post-sanctions environment is a good illustration of the problem. The United States can stick to its principles and policy to oppose Iran, but what will it do when American allies—Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and other members of the European Union and NATO—expand their cooperation with the Islamic Republic? What makes the situation even more complicated is the fact that billions of dollars are at stake. Iran is a significant regional power which can gain strength from these partnerships. And it does not appear that the Europeans will back down from their projects in Iran. What will Washington do in this situation? It is already obvious that the Europeans, by avoiding harsh anti-Iran rhetoric when it does not serve any foreign policy goal, are at least retaining room to maneuver. Sure, France took a hard line against Iran when the current deal was being negotiated. But after the agreement was reached and implemented, President Rouhani was welcomed in Paris and French companies are excited by the prospect of improved cooperation with Iran.

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