Fruits of diplomacy: Obama's legacy in the Middle East

"No good deed goes unpunished" goes the popular adage. In the last year of the Obama administration, one can imagine a framed crocheted version of the saying hanging on the Oval Office wall. For President Obama never gets a break.

From his first day in office, Mr. Obama's critics refused to acknowledge his achievements. Commentators and reporters abetted them, jumping reflexively from a brief news story on the White House to lengthier reports on the knocks and insults of his critics.

The dismissal effect is especially strong in the heat of this year's electoral politics, when each member of a football squad of Republican candidates is straining to appear to their base to be the most conservative in the group and, therefore, the most hostile to Obama.

Embittered partisanship has become so ingrained that the days when partisan bickering ended at the coastline seem like a daydream. But the last week has presented the president with a series of diplomatic victories that in a less poisoned time would be feted as proof of his foreign policy prowess.

Sunday, Jan. 17, the historic nuclear deal between the United States and Iran took effect. That day the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formally certified that Iran had fulfilled its commitments to drastically curtail its nuclear program under the nuclear deal reached last year. In the most dramatic act of disarmament, Iran removed the core of its former nuclear production facility at Arak and filled the reactor core with cement.

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In response to the IAEA certification President Obama lifted economic sanctions imposed on Iran because of its preparations to build a nuclear arsenal. Obama's action was duplicated by the United Nations and the European Union, both partners in the sanctions against Iran.

Iran will now have access tens of billions of dollars of its own money frozen overseas and can reap the financial benefits of re-entering the global oil market and accessing financial institutions. The record low price of oil, however, will limit the economic resurgence Iranians may have hoped for.

In addition, not all sanctions were lifted. American companies are prevented from doing business in Iran, and on January 20, in response to Iranian tests of long-range ballistic missiles, President Obama announced new sanctions. Iran also remains on the U.S. State Departments list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Speaking from the Oval Office, the president added that while "the nuclear deal was never intended to resolve all of our differences with Iran," the diplomatic approach he had advocated so strongly for had "created a unique opportunity, a window, to try to resolve important issues." Normalization of relations with Iran is not yet in prospect, but President Obama is already enjoying the fruit of his diplomatic policy.

Three other developments supported the president's "fruit of diplomacy" claims. First was the release, Jan. 13, of U.S. sailors who were held by Iran after their two patrol boats had strayed into Iranian waters. This release happened within 24 hours. Second, was a major prisoner exchange between Iran and the U.S. on Jan. 16. Third was the opening of a way for talks to end the Syrian civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry ought also to be commended for his skillful and diligent diplomacy. His tireless travel, his willingness to gamble to resolve even the hardest problems, and his skill in building personal relations with his peers, like the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javas Zarif and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, have greatly facilitated diplomatic victories, including the eradication of the Syrian chemical weapon arsenal and the anticipated multiparty meeting on Syria which is expected to convene at the end of this week.

In addition, the professionalism of the U.S. Foreign Service was likewise an ingredient in the success of Mr. Obama's American diplomatic offensive. Ambassador Wendy Sherman proved a formidable negotiator in leading the U.S. team in the multi-party nuclear negotiations with Iran; and in parallel but unlinked negotiations, Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk toiled for a year and a half to free American captives returned last week.

Iran's random detentions of Americans had been a great irritant to U.S-Iranian relations and an emotional trial for the families of the Americans involved. The five Americans released by Iran (Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, and graduate student Matthew Trevithick) had generally been considered to have been held as political chips by the Iranians.

The American's detention had been a reproach to the Administration. Republicans had criticized President Obama for not insisting that the release of the Americans being held in Iran be part of the nuclear deal itself. "They [the Iranians] take people hostage in order to gain concessions," charged Senator Marco Rubio. The prisoners' release was a rebuttal to Mr. Rubio's charges, demonstrating to the effectiveness of the president's diplomatic policy.

Incidentally, just as the new ballistic missile sanctions proved Mr. Obama's toughness, so the choice of the released Iranian businessmen, convicted of violating the U.S. sanctions regime to remain in the U.S., showed his prowess at diplomatic judo.

The final fruit of diplomacy is still not ripe for the picking. On Jan. 25 the United States and Iran plan to participate in new Syrian peace talks in Geneva. This process will prove far more complex and difficult than the negotiations over prisoners and maybe even more than the nuclear negotiations themselves: finding a negotiated settlement to the five-year-long Syrian civil war.

The projected participants include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and Syrian rebels. The U.S. will have to deliver Iran and rebel representatives; the Russians, Syria. By holding back any of the major regional actors, Saudi, Iran or Syria, could jeopardize the negotiations.

The leverage of Kerry and Lavrov over their client states will be needed to bring them to the table; and the strength of their odd-couple partnership will be tested in devising a cessation of conflict and a transition to a peaceful Syria.

Without a peace process led by the two rival superpowers, Syria will remain a humanitarian catastrophe for its people, a fertile swamp for the growth of the ISIS monster and a security nightmare for the European Union and its member states. It will be the ultimate test of President Obama's diplomacy-first policy.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]​

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