THE BLOG
07/14/2015 08:15 am ET | Updated Jul 14, 2016

Iran Deal: Who Won the Peace?

JOE KLAMAR via Getty Images

John F. Kennedy, licking his wounds from the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, told a press conference that "Victory has a hundred fathers. Failure is an orphan." This piquant observation, derived from the Roman historian Tacitus, comes to mind as many of us celebrate the most historic foreign-policy achievement of the Obama presidency, and possibly the most important "victory" for global peace in the last three decades.

Who won the peace? Who are the hundred fathers (and mothers) of this triumph? Certainly the London bookies will have odds-on for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The brigades of negotiators and leaders of the two main antagonists, as well as those of the remaining P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, and Britain -- and the European Union and the U.N. will rightly take their bows. It will be some time before we get the complete narrative of how this all came together in Vienna and elsewhere in this marathon of talk.

But I draw attention to the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who labored for decades to get this result, the academics, scientists, activists, journalists, religious leaders and many others who did the grunt work of peace making. Kerry, Zarif, and presidents Obama and Rouhani will carry home the laurels, and of course they deserve the adulation -- political risks were (and are) high for all. But change of this kind does not simply appear suddenly like Minerva springing from the head of Zeus.

A precedent I studied years ago is worth mentioning -- the end of the Cold War. We still argue about how and why the U.S.-Soviet rivalry suddenly subsided. Most attribute it to the two buddies of detente, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, and the unique circumstances of accommodation -- the Soviet Union's economic decrepitude, and Reagan's uncanny political instincts. But, like the present moment, there were many thousands of people who were either protesting the nuclear arms race, analyzing the confrontation and seeking ways out of it, building trust between adversaries, and otherwise seeking an end to the madness of thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger readiness.

In fact, the Cold War was a highly formalized affair, with institutes and think tanks and university programs and NGOs dedicated solely to studying and problem-solving its many puzzles. Years of negotiations over a series of arms control measures provided some stability and hope. Citizen diplomacy came into vogue in the 1970s. The relationship waxed and waned, but through it all, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations, trade, exchanges, and the other trappings of normal politics, all buttressed by civil society organizations, universities, and the like.

Something similar, if on a smaller scale, has driven forward the stubborn governments in Tehran and Washington. Due to his fecklessness, Jimmy Carter cut diplomatic ties to Iran and the relationship -- and the possibilities for some sort of détente -- suffered as a result for 36 years. Little or no trade, difficulty having ordinary human contact, sanctions imposed on Iran throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, and small-scale skirmishes in Iraq, cyber-espionage, and other insults kept the pot boiling.

For those wanting to break through this morass, the barriers were formidable. Little by little, however, some did. Search for Common Ground, the largest conflict-prevention NGO in the United States, managed some exchanges of wrestlers in the 1990s and other such activities. Other "track two" efforts, in which some substantive dialogue took place, but unofficially, were engineered and involved former and future officials like Thomas Pickering, a career U.S. diplomat, and Zarif. Pugwash, a durable organization of scientists from around the world who played a role in the U.S.-Soviet détente, reprised that with Iran. More technical groups and individuals -- the Arms Control Association, Matt Bunn at Harvard, my MIT colleague Jim Walsh, Frank von Hippel at Princeton, among many others -- were instrumental in providing scientific backup for pro-deal arguments. An effective and relatively new "ethnic" lobby, the National Iranian Action Council headed by Trita Parsi, was indefatigable in its public advocacy for a deal.

Sympathetic journalists and websites (the latter, of course, not available during the Cold War) could counter the largely skeptical or indifferent news coverage of the old media -- Lobe Log, founded by Jim Lobe, Al Monitor, especially the reporting of Laura Rozen, as well as The Huffington Post, played this crucial role. And organized philanthropy, notably the Ploughshares Fund, the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which funds my Iran project), and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, among others, were consistent and even visionary backers of the nonprofit work.

The new media, academics, and NGOs' persistence on this issue, beginning well before this two-year stretch of negotiations, is especially decisive because the opponents of a deal -- Israel and its allies in America and the Gulf monarchies -- have been tireless in throwing up barriers, as I've discussed many times. (Hashtag activism, by the way, is not large and is generated mainly by pro-Israel groups.) Indeed, the very fact of the Iran deal, assuming it survives congressional challenges, may be Israel's biggest setback in American foreign policy since the Suez crisis 60 years ago, even though, as many point out (including former Israeli security chiefs) Israeli security is enhanced by the terms of the agreement. Particularly using its lobbying arms, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and its "think tank," the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel has lobbied harder on this than anything in memory.

Remarkably, U.S. public opinion has for many months now favored the negotiation. I say "remarkably" because Iran has been the reliable bad guy in the American national narrative since the embassy hostage taking of 1979-80, and negative perceptions of Iran remain very high. The shift in public attitudes to support the deal is due not least to all the groups and individuals mentioned earlier, and by circumstances -- the election of the moderate Rouhani in 2013, the American fatigue with the violent disarray of the Mideast (with a reluctant acknowledgement that we have a lot to do with that) and a desire for stability, and the rise of the Islamic State in particular. Many elites have turned just enough to support the deal, and this is reflected in a broader acceptance.

To some degree, similar factors were in play to end the Cold War. A reformist came to power (Gorbachev) who openly sought rapprochement; the American public, frightened and weary of the arms race, embraced his overtures; a president on his heels (the Iran-contra scandal) saw a major political opening; and the long, hard work of civil society and scientists to prepare the public for bold action paid off. The end of the Cold War was vastly more consequential than this nuclear accord with Iran, but the ways and means of getting to a satisfying conclusion are striking in their resemblances.

This is the "small d" in a democratic foreign policy: ordinary citizens and experts marshaling empirical evidence, making problem-solving suggestions, articulating a vision of a safer world, and mobilizing a public demand for peace. This time, it worked brilliantly.