The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program provides President Obama with a rare potential achievement in a blunder-filled second term, but the move is also raising tensions with Israel, America’s most important ally in the Middle East.
The tentative pact announced Sunday is aimed at thwarting Iran’s ambitions to build a nuclear weapon — just the sort of foreign-policy development that analysts say Mr. Obama needs for any realistic hope of getting his administration back on track.
Since winning re-election a year ago, Mr. Obama’s presidency has been sidetracked by a series of scandals and missteps: the mishandling of the Benghazi terrorist attack, the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups, the leaks about National Security Agency surveillance programs, worsening relations with the media over a lack of transparency, the government shutdown and multiple flaws in the rollout of Obamacare. Along the way, Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating has plummeted from around 58 percent last December to the upper 30s today.
The deal with Iran comes on the heels of the face-saving diplomatic solution the White House was able to find in Syria, where U.S. military intervention into that country’s bloody civil war once looked inevitable. Instead, Mr. Obama seized a last-minute offer from Russia to broker a deal to confiscate Syria’s chemical weapons.
Such agreements were exactly what American voters expected from Mr. Obama, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and a specialist on the U.S. presidency.
“What he ultimately did in Syria and Iran is in keeping with where a lot of Americans are in terms of foreign policy,” Mr. Scala said. “They certainly don’t want more American troops in the Middle East. Especially on Iran, if he’s able to turn the page … that would definitely be a big part of Obama’s legacy. It could go right up there with [the killing of] Osama bin Laden.”
But the agreement with Iran is also straining the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which has deteriorated sharply during Mr. Obama’s presidency. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the pact a “historic mistake.”
“It’s not made the world a safer place,” Mr. Netanyahu said. He asserted that the agreement will allow Iran to take “only cosmetic steps which it could reverse easily within a few weeks; and in return, sanctions that took years to put in place are going to be eased.”
James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the Iran deal “accomplishes nothing” and is part of a troubling pattern with the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East.
“This administration was desperate for something to make it look like they’re accomplishing things,” Mr. Carafano said. “They’ve been consistent on that from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and Syria. It doesn’t actually matter if you make things better, it just matters that you create the appearance that you’re making things better temporarily.”
With this agreement, Mr. Carafano said, U.S. relations with Israel have hit an all-time low.
“It makes it worse, but it’s really hard to imagine how it could get any worse,” he said.
The agreement with Iran also puts Mr. Obama on worse terms with traditional U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
“It has estranged the United States from its two closest allies in the region,” Mr. Miller said. “You can’t describe this as a good agreement. It has served to create real tensions in those two relationships, leaving both leaderships angry, aggrieved and willing to do everything they possibly can to undermine it.”
Mr. Miller said the pact will also make it more difficult for the Obama administration to pursue an accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.