Is the Iran Deal Obama's Nixon-in-China Moment?

The president's negotiation could remake global politics—but he faces recriminations from domestic opponents and foreign allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

What's the best evidence that things are really changing in the Mideast? It is the spectacle of Israel and Saudi Arabia, hitherto America's two closest allies in the region, glowering darkly on the sidelines (and more or less in unison) as the United States and Iran begin an engagement that is already more profound than anything we've seen since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

This historic shift, punctuated by the signing Saturday of a six-month, nuclear-freeze deal that both Israel and Saudi Arabia had loudly opposed, could potentially transform the entire region. If the rapprochement between Washington and Tehran continues—a very big if—it could open new doors to the resolution of long-festering conflicts that have left the two countries on the opposite side of bloody divides in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even the Israeli-Palestinian issue, altering the strategic landscape in a way not seen, perhaps, since President Nixon blindsided the Soviets by making friends with Communist China at the height of the Cold War.

What is most striking about Saturday's agreement is that the Obama Administration appears to be declaring partial independence from the policy of Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose hard-line stances toward Iran have seriously constrained U.S. action, especially over the last decade. "Finally, the dog wags the tail. Tough luck for Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu!" says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar of the Middle East at the London School of Economics and author of the recent book The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World.

Indeed, to the extent that Netanyahu continues to rail against the deal as he did again this weekend—calling it a "historic mistake"—he will likely only marginalize himself. The immediate reaction of the Saudis was far more muted, although Riyadh is equally worried about the U.S. shift. To be sure, both the Saudis, with their oil leverage, and the Israelis, with powerful friends on Capitol Hill, can be expected to try every means to derail the U.S.-Iran rapprochement, but those efforts are likely to be neutralized for the moment if Iran follows through on its six-month commitments to stop production of medium-enriched uranium, make no "further advances of its activities" at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, the hardened underground Fordow facility and the Arak plutonium plant, and open its most-secret facilities to unprecedented inspection.

There is, of course, a very long way from here to there. The freeze deal is also disconcertingly vague on what happens after six months, which is the most glaring lacuna in the pact. Iran committed itself to diluting or converting its entire stockpile of uranium that has been enriched to 20 percent, in other words a step below weapons grade. But if talks go awry both sides could reverse themselves without too much difficulty. Iran could unfreeze enrichment as well as reactivate and build more centrifuges, and the United States and "P5 Plus One"—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany—could re-impose the tiny measure of sanctions (about $7 billion worth) they have agreed to lift.

The two sides are already disagreeing over whether the pact gives Iran the "right" to enrich (for ostensibly peaceful purposes). Iran is also being permitted to keep its current centrifuges although it must partially deactivate the ones that are running. But full dismantlement is not yet on the table, along with Iran's research and development program. "After the six months deal, will Iran have 5,000 IR1 centrifuges or will it have 20,000—they couldn't agree on that," says David Albright, a widely respected expert on Iran's nuclear program who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "It's a little less settled than I would have hoped."

Despite these doubts, it is worth noting that during the 10-year period of failed negotiation dating from 2003, when President George W. Bush torpedoed his own diplomats' efforts at rapprochement by carelessly declaring Tehran to be part of an "axis of evil," Iran has gone from running 164 centrifuges at a single pilot plant to some 19,000. The international sanctions by themselves, no matter how harsh they have grown, were not enough to stop that progress, only to bring Tehran tentatively to the table. The pact will, for the first time, halt that aggressive building program and, just as importantly, perhaps shore up the political position of the Iranian moderates who were silenced for most of that decade.

If the United States and Iran can build on this potential rapprochement, it "will likely redraw the geostrategic architecture in the Gulf and the Middle East," says Gerges. A lot could become possible that was not before. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is gaining ground and refusing to talk to the rebels largely because of the help he's getting from Iran-backed Hezbollah troops. In increasingly violence-wracked Iraq, Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki feels he has a freer hand to sideline Sunnis (thereby giving new life to al-Qaeda in Iraq) because of support from Tehran, to which Maliki is also granting overflight rights for weapons supplies into Syria. If post-2014 Afghanistan is to gain any stability, Iran must be induced to resume its formerly hostile relationship with the Sunni Taliban in the West. And if Iran can be persuaded to further distance itself from Hamas (Tehran reportedly slashed funding in anger after Hamas moved its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar) and at least quiet its anti-Israel rhetoric, that would make a Palestinian peace deal more possible.

For Obama, the domestic politics are perilous, of course, just as they were in 1972 for Nixon, who had to face harsh recriminations from his former fellow anti-communist colleagues on Capitol Hill and the powerful anti-détente lobby. Yet Nixon too saw the need to break through a geopolitical situation that was frozen in place for more than a decade. "In Asia, the United States was stuck with a China policy that obliged it to act as though Chiang [Kai-shek] and the other losers of the Chinese civil war were someday going to retake the mainland. The United States was enmeshed in a war in Vietnam that was costing up to 15,000 lives a year," James Mann wrote in his 1999 book About Face. "Nixon's initiative was aimed at breaking all of these shackles and creating a world in which American foreign policy would have greater flexibility."

In the end, the latest attempt could come down to whether Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can create a kind of cold peace in the region—a verifiable if informal mutual reassurance pact between Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Israel needs to be reassured that Iran is not hell-bent on destroying it with a nuclear bomb; and Saudi Arabia that it doesn't need start up its own nuclear weapons program to counter Tehran's. But the hardest sell of all may be left to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and other moderates, who must persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other hardliners that Tehran can keep at least some of its nuclear-energy program—and its dignity—while stopping verifiably short of the bomb.