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Testing the “Obama Doctrine”

May 7th, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Research Assistant

Over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency, his administration has crafted its foreign policy based on the resounding belief that engagement and multilateralism is a more effective solution than confrontation and unilateralism.  Most recently, this so-called “Obama Doctrine” has been applied, with apparent success, to Cuba and is in the process of being tested in nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Obama argues that with America’s “overwhelming power, [it] needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities – like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that…forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade”.  However, unlike opening the United States’ diplomatic relations with Cuba, the nuclear negotiations with Iran is far more complex and involves consulting various international actors, while also negotiating the future of economic sanctions currently being applied to Iran.  Thus, in comparison to the application of the Obama Doctrine to the long-standing U.S. isolation of Cuba, the Iranian nuclear threat represents a challenge with much higher stakes for all involved whereby mere engagement may not be enough.  For the negotiations to have a better chance of succeeding, President Obama must be prepared to facilitate more active participation among the various stakeholders, specifically Israel, and provide a direct plan for the possible lifting of sanctions.

Unlike nuclear negotiations with Iran, the application of the Obama Doctrine has so far proved to be successful in Cuba due to the isolated characteristics of the situation that allowed President Obama to announce the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries on 17 December 2014.  For many Americans, this announcement came as a surprise and one that will undoubtedly help shape the President’s legacy of accomplishments.  Prior to restoring diplomatic relations, the United States had a distant relationship with Cuba that dates back to the Cold War era when, in 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reacted to Fidel Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union by imposing a near-full trade embargo and severing all diplomatic ties.  Two years later, this embargo was fully increased by President John F. Kennedy to restrict all travel and trade in hopes of isolating Cuba and pressuring Castro’s government to end its alliance with the USSR.  Since the imposition of the embargo, it is estimated that Cuba has lost approximately $1.126 trillion, which underscores the economic rationale that most likely influenced Cuba’s willingness to restore diplomatic relations with the United States.  This massive financial loss from the embargo has not only adversely affected Cuba, but also has negatively impacted American companies by limiting their investment opportunities.  Thus, Cuba serves as an ideal scenario for the Obama Doctrine by allowing the foreign policy approach of experimentally engaging with another country to be pursued without risking any harm to U.S. interests.  As explained by President Obama, his administration intends to “end an outdated approach, that for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries…[and] create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people”.  So far, this normalization of relations has occurred successfully, exemplified by the historic handshake and high-level talks between both presidents at the Summit of Americas in Panama City and the confirmation from the White House on 14 April that President Obama intends to remove Cuba from the American list of state sponsors of terrorism.  This swift and largely unopposed normalization of relations with Cuba can be largely attributed to the lack of international controversy or external actors that could greatly disrupt the process.  In discussion with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama acknowledges this situational distinction by stating that “for us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t many risks for us.  It’s a tiny little country.  It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition”.  And yet, with this understanding of Cuba’s relatively unique small-scale characteristics, the Obama administration still hopes to successfully apply similar foreign policy principles to the Iranian nuclear negotiations where the security interests of Israel, a strong ally of the United States, are seemingly threatened and critics of Obama frequently threaten to disrupt the negotiating process.

Unlike the largely bilateral tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, a far broader international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has continued for more than a decade. The actual nuclear negotiations began in November 2013, when representatives of Iran and the so-called P5+1 group, which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as well as Germany, reached a preliminary agreement that froze several of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for limited “sanctions relief”.  Most recently, the framework for a final agreement was announced on 2 April. This framework symbolizes all of the parties’ continued efforts at reaching a comprehensive deal by the end of June.  From this deal, the P5+1 aims to limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and ensure that all of Iran’s nuclear actions are purely peaceful while Iran, in return, hopes to have permanent relief from severe sanctions that have crippled its nation’s economy for years.  Additionally, the Obama administration views the negotiations as another opportunity to utilize the Obama Doctrine to engage with another country and work to overcome a negative situation while protecting and even enhancing American interests.  However, the highly contested subject of sanctions and the pressure from competing actors, such as Israel, challenges the straightforwardness of Obama’s approach and suggests that more than mere engagement may be needed to successfully forge an agreement that is perceived by all stakeholders as strong enough to remove Iran as a nuclear threat and generous enough to free Iran from detrimental sanctions.

The issue of sanctions involves multiple actors, such as the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the European Union, who imposed the economic punishment in 2002 when Iran announced its nuclear program.  Although Iran has repeatedly claimed that its nuclear facilities are only used with peaceful intentions, much of the international community has continued the detrimental sanctions in a widespread attempt to deter Iran from developing military nuclear capability.  The International Monetary Fund has estimated that Iran’s gross domestic product shrunk by 1.9% from 2011 to 2012 and that Iran lost approximately $26 billion in oil revenue during 2012.  While some of this financial burden was relieved in 2013 with the preliminary nuclear agreement that granted Iran nearly $7 billion in relief from sanctions, the Iranian government continues to demand the suspension of all other sanctions, which have caused inflation to rise to at least 40% and the Iranian currency to lose two-thirds of its value in comparison to the U.S. dollar.  Thus, in the ongoing negotiations, Iran seeks to have an immediate repeal of international sanctions in exchange for its cooperation with the P5+1’s nuclear demands.  However, differences between the Iranian and American interpretations of the April framework deal have already emerged as exemplified by Iran’s report stating that “all the resolutions of the [U.N] Security Council and all the multilateral European and unilateral American sanctions…will be immediately removed”.  This understanding of sanctions contradicts the interpretation presented in the American report, which states that “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments” and that these sanctions will only be suspended after the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies the desirable results of Iran’s commitment.  Thus, the Obama Doctrine’s willingness to allow the understanding of sanctions to develop on their own has resulted in confusion and contestation over the meaning and timely application of sanctions relief.  Due to the importance of the status of future sanctions to all parties involved, this unresolved issue could disrupt the negotiations and jeopardize the international community’s opportunity to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Another potential threat to the negotiation’s success is Israel and its outspoken opposition to any deal that allows Iran to maintain a nuclear infrastructure and accepts its failure to recognize the state of Israel.  Not only does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuous protest of the evolving negotiations strain their alliance with P5+1 members, most notably the United States, but Netanyahu’s stance also intensifies President Obama’s fight with much of the U.S. Congress regarding the application of a potential deal.  On 3 March, the Israeli Prime Minister spoke before a joint session of Congress and argued that the nuclear negotiations had two flaws, that is “one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade.  That is why this deal is so bad.  It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb”.  Not only have Netanyahu’s words infuriated the Iranian government who, being aware of the United States’ alliance with Israel, referred to the speech as “sickening”, but the Israeli Prime Minister’s presence has helped fuel a bipartisan sponsored bill that prevents any final deal from taking effect for sixty days, thus allowing Congress time to deliberate voting for or against the negotiated agreement.  For example, conservative Senator Mark Kirk has adopted a similar stance to Netanyahu by stating that “under today’s deal, the United States and its international partners will dismantle the sanctions regime against Iran, while Iran, the world’s biggest exporter of terrorism, will be allowed to keep vast capabilities to make nuclear weapons”.  Therefore, Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition to the framework of the current negotiations is only further exacerbating tensions between the P5+1 and Iran as well as President Obama and the U.S. Congress, the latter whose support Obama ultimately needs to permanently remove any U.S. sanctions.

Yet, much of the international community has agreed with President Obama regarding the observation “that there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward”.  However, with the ambiguity of the status of sanctions and Israel’s political presence, the capability of reaching a final nuclear agreement is in constant jeopardy as long as President Obama continues to implement the Obama Doctrine in spite of sharp opposition from stakeholders both at home and abroad.  Instead, to better ensure the nuclear negotiation’s success, President Obama, along with the P5+1, should clearly define “sanctions relief” and, after consulting with other sanctioning actors, present Iran with a detailed list of which sanctions can be repealed by certain dates based upon Iranian cooperation.  Additionally, President Obama must strive to recognize and represent Israel’s securities interests at the negotiating table by involving them in the process as a third-party actor.  By actively engaging with Israel, Obama will remove Netanyahu’s influence as an independent presence and allow Israel to work with the P5+1 instead of against members.  There is no doubt that President Obama considers these negotiations to be of utmost importance, for he has previously stated that: “I’ve been very clear that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon on my watch, and I think they should understand that we mean it”.  However, to provide the best opportunity for a nuclear deal to be reached on his watch, then the president must move the Obama Doctrine away from the two dimensional engagement that occurred with Cuba and towards a proactive multi-dimensional form of engagement that is more willing to risk bringing all actors into the negotiations and explicitly defining sanctions demands in order to produce the best possible agreement.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is a Junior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center where she helped research and organize the international Women and Girls’ Rising Conference held this past September. Lauren’s research interests include human rights, humanitarian intervention, international security, and post-conflict reconciliation.