WASHINGTON -- It may be hard to remember today, but Barack Obama became president, more or less, thanks to his foreign policy. His early opposition to the war in Iraq gave him the wedge he needed to differentiate himself from the far-and-away frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.
During the campaign, he used Iran to further drive home the contrast. In a debate in July 2007, Obama said he'd meet with then-Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without precondition." It was an extension of Obama's diplomacy-first foreign policy, and he came under withering attack not just from the GOP, but also from Clinton.
“I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive,” Clinton told the Quad-City Times after the debate.
Obama stood by his controversial position and as president, embarked on high-stakes negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, resulting in Thursday's improbable agreement to reduce, control and monitor Iran's nuclear program. Coming on the heels of major deals with two other longtime U.S. adversaries, China and Cuba, Obama is steadily building a diplomatic legacy to match his campaign rhetoric.
On a Thursday call with reporters, senior administration officials underscored how much of a priority Obama has made a diplomatic solution on Iran.
"There's no foreign policy issue he has spent more time on," said one official. "I'd say over the course of his presidency, other than the war in Afghanistan and terrorism, Iran is an issue that he's spent more time on than any other issue. The first negotiation that he had on this started in 2009, so he's very familiar with the Iranian nuclear program and all the different elements."
In exchange for relief from sanctions, Iran agreed to concessions that just days earlier had seemed to be off the table. The prospect of Iran coming into the fold of the international community is the first ray of hope in a region beset by chaos since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago. The elimination of Iraq's Saddam Hussein led to the rise of Shiite sectarianism and Sunni repression. The resulting insurgency has culminated in the virtual breakup of Iraq, with Iran dominating its Shia region and the self-proclaimed Islamic State controlling much of the Sunni region.
With the only realistic alternative to negotiations being war on Iran, Obama's commitment to the process stands as a testament to the power of diplomacy to avoid, or at least postpone, bloodshed. To be sure, Obama has not always shied away from violence, including with his early and enthusiastic embrace of drone strikes and a military surge in Afghanistan that accomplished little beyond expanding the killing.
The deal with Iran comes two months after Obama announced a warming of relations with Cuba, another longtime U.S. foe. "In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new," Obama said during his State of the Union speech.
Republicans in Congress threatened to oppose an administration appointment related to Cuba to protest the new policy, or otherwise tie the president's hands. “I am committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as possible,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
In November, Obama, during a trip to China, surprised observers with a bilateral climate change deal that puts China on a path to reduced emissions. American opponents of acting to stave off climate change have long used China as a reason not to act, arguing that whatever the U.S. does will be overshadowed by the coal-heavy nation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) slammed the agreement, and in March went further, warning the rest of the world not to trust the efforts the U.S. is making to reduce its own emissions. "Even if the job-killing and likely illegal Clean Power Plan were fully implemented, the United States could not meet the targets laid out in this proposed new plan," he said in a statement. "Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it, our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal."
The statement followed an open letter written to Iran's leadership by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and 46 other Senate Republicans, similarly warning that the U.S. might not live up to whatever commitments the president made during the nuclear negotiations.
Criticism of the deal after it was announced continued to come in from the GOP, but there were signs that the tide may be turning ever so slightly. Bill O'Reilly, speaking on Fox News just after the announcement, suggested giving peace a chance.
“You don’t want a war with Iran,” O'Reilly said. “You don’t want to bomb that country because the unintended consequences will set the world aflame. So if you can get something that’s decent, you give it a shot."
Jennifer Bendery and Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.