Nuclear negotiations have almost always been about more than curbing an arms race. For instance, Ronald Reagan’s agreement in 1987 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate intermediate-range missiles in Europe was also about ending the Cold War. The same can be said about the negotiations that the United States and the P5+1 — Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, and the European Union — have been conducting with Iran over its nuclear weapons ambitions.

On one level, these talks are about nuclear proliferation. The United States and the P5+1 want Iran to suspend its nuclear program for at least a decade in exchange for ending economic sanctions that these countries and the United Nations have imposed on Iran. In interviews President Barack Obama has insisted that a final agreement based on the “framework” that the sides adopted on 2 April would be a “good deal” even if “Iran is implacably opposed to the United States” in other respects.

But Obama has also suggested that an agreement with Iran could lead to a general breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy. Getting the treaty, Obama told a National Public Radio interviewer, could "strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran" who think it is counterproductive "to seek to destroy Israel, to cause havoc in places like Syria or Yemen or Lebanon.” 

Critics of the agreement have argued that removing sanctions would actually enhance Iran’s ability to wreak havoc in the Middle East, but Obama takes the opposite view. Removing sanctions, he argues, would integrate Iran into the regional and world economy and make it less likely they would pursue a disruptive path. “If in fact they're engaged in international business, and there are foreign investors, and their economy becomes more integrated with the world economy, then in many ways it makes it harder for them to engage in behaviours that are contrary to international norms,” Obama told NPR.

If Obama is right, an agreement with Iran could entail a new American strategy in the Middle East rooted in a new configuration of power among the region’s nations. From the American standpoint, Iran would become a major player to be dealt with alongside America’s usual allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Instead of automatically backing the Israelis and Saudis, the United States would now balance their claims and interests against those of the Iranians. That prospect of a new American diplomacy is what has clearly bothered both countries about the American and P5+1 negotiations with Iran. 

Over the last sixty years, American strategy in the Middle East has gone through five different stages, all of which have deeply involved Iran as either friend or foe. In 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, the United States established CENTO (the Central Treaty Organization), a Middle Eastern counterpart to NATO, that united the United States, Great Britain, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan, but the alliance floundered when the key Arab nation, Iraq, pulled out in 1958. By the early 1970s, the United States was touting Israel and the Shah’s Iran — who were allied — as bookends to its Middle East strategy. That strategy was put to rest by the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

During the 1980s, American diplomacy depended on Israel and the Sunni states of the region, led by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, to prevent Soviet advances. But the United States turned on Iraq in 1990 when it invaded Kuwait. The United States got the support of other Arab nations in the Gulf War, but then in 2003, when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, the United States failed to win the support of other Arab nations. Bush’s goal was to create a Pax Americana in the Middle East headquartered in Israel and a newly democratic Iraq, but instead of unifying the region, Bush’s invasion unleashed tribal, religious, and ethnic rivalries that have sown chaos in the region, threatening the demarcation of states and peoples that the imperial powers established after the First World War. The question now is not who will control Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but whether these states will even exist.

During this period, Iran made several overtures to the United States. In January 1998, Iran’s new prime minister Mohammed Khatami gave an interview to CNN in which he expressed regret for the embassy takeover and praised American civilisation, but his statement was ignored by Washington. In 2001, Iran aided the United States in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003, Iran made a comprehensive proposal that included accepting international inspections of its nuclear program and endorsing a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, but the Bush administration, which had branded Iran part of the “axis of evil,” rejected the proposal outright.

American rejection of the Iranian proposal contributed to Khatami’s downfall in 2004 and to the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who over the next eight years inflamed relations between Tehran and Washington. In August 2013, however, Hassan Rouhani, a surprise victor in the July elections, took office and reached out to the United States; Obama, who had promised during the 2008 elections to engage America’s adversaries, was receptive.

Rouhani’s overture came at a time when American diplomacy in the Middle East was approaching Ground Zero. Obama’s effort, reminiscent of George W. Bush, to promote democracy and reform in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring had come to naught in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Obama initially focused the new diplomacy with Iran entirely on the nuclear talks. In January 2014, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry blocked Iranian participation in the Geneva conference on Syria, even though Iran was and remains Bashar al-Assad’s main international backer. But as the Islamic State has begun to carve up Iraq, and as America’s hopes of encouraging moderate rebel opposition to Assad have faded, the Obama administration has begun to work alongside, if not directly with, Iran in Iraq and Syria. The seeds of a new diplomacy are being sown.

The United States has taken other steps that suggest it is finally moving beyond the false promises and ideological pretensions of the Bush years. It has reconciled itself to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military rule in Egypt, it has hinted that it is willing to negotiate with Assad’s government in Syria, and it has given up attempting to broker a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Each of these steps are unfortunate in themselves — they signal acquiescence to brutal dictatorship in Egypt and Syria and to the colonial subjugation of the Palestinians — but together they amount to the replacement of Bush era’s misplaced idealism with a more prudent realism based on a recognition of America’s limits in the region and on a rejection of the Bush-era distinction between “good” and “evil” regimes.

With the negotiations with Iran and with America’s shift toward realism in the region, the transition to a new diplomatic strategy has clearly begun, but there are huge obstacles that still stand in the way. The United States and the P5+1 will have to secure a final agreement — slated for 30 June — with the Iranians. There are powerful opponents of an agreement in Iran as well as in Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the United States, a motley coalition is determined to derail the agreement. It consists of Republicans who oppose Obama on partisan grounds; neo-conservatives; evangelicals; and even some liberal Democrats who, out of strategic, theological, or ethnic concerns, want the United States to do Israel’s bidding in the region; and aspiring Democratic and Republican politicians who feel threatened by Israel’s powerful lobbies in the United States. Their hope of blocking the agreement currently centres on a bill currently before Congress that would grant the Republican-majority Congress the right to approve the agreement.

Even if the United States and P5+1 do sign a final agreement with Iran, and it gets through the US Congress and is implemented, Obama will have to hope that Iran’s objective in gaining an agreement was not simply to increase its ability, through an economy strengthened by the removal of sanctions, to get its way against its Sunni adversaries in the region. That is a possibility, and one that critics of the negotiations frequently cite, but Iran’s past overtures to the United States and the presence of a genuine reform movement in that country suggest that Obama’s underlying aims are not simply wishful thinking. The Obama administration and its successor would also have to withstand pressure from Israel and its allies in Washington to maintain in full the “special relationship” between the countries. 

If the pattern of history recurs, what will probably happen is some muddled and compromised and only partially effective version of a new diplomacy, but even that would be preferable to the fevered swamp into which American diplomacy in the region has sunk during the last fifteen years.