One of the minor mysteries of this teenage century is how a toddler American President managed to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2008 after just weeks in office. Barack Obama had done nothing more notable than defeat the era of George W. Bush, an incumbent burdened with voter fatigue. Obama was brilliant; his victory was sensational; but these are not criteria considered sufficient by Oslo to hand over a prestigious gong with large cheque attached.
Presidents are expected to get such supplementary benefits to their pension fund, but only after they have done pretty hefty lifting in some dark corner of this very rough neighbourhood called the world. For the large school of satirists, Bush was good enough as reason. As chief architect of the Iraq war in Iraq, Bush sat on top of the list of warmongers. Anyone who could remove his hawks from their nest in the White House was ipso facto a peacemaker. Ergo.
Well, the joke has ended on a satisfactory note. Six years later, Obama has justified that rather prescient confidence in his political objectives. The nuclear deal with Iran that he and John Kerry pushed through, will be a landmark achievement in the modern history of strategic negotiations. At the simplest level, it prevents Iran from converting its advanced nuclear capability into a weapons programme, without abandoning the deal for at least a three-year breakout period. [That is three years too many.] The agreement restores Iran’s legitimate role in regional and world affairs, and aborts any covert turn that Iran might take towards radical, or even rogue, isolationism. It brings Iran back into the international economic framework by lifting sanctions. It ends the visceral antagonism that has consumed US-Iran relations since 1979, when the American ally, the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown by a stirring mass movement, and American diplomats were taken hostage.
This deal has been a bit of a done deal for some months. The proof does not lie in statements emanating from Lausanne, where negotiators spent arduous years in a salubrious climate. [Which peace talks have ever been held in a desert or a tundra? Diplomats know how to look after themselves.] The evidence comes from the tougher terrain of an explosive battlefield, Iraq.
The extraordinary twists in the Iraq story await their historian because there is still some way to go. But the consequential rise of the Sunni Islamic State in north Iraq, with controls over huge territory and ability to function as citadel of menacing proportions is one of the greatest threats to regional and international stability. About a year ago, this Caliphate had shattered the Baghdad army and was on the brink of seizing the capital. War creates alliances that would have been unimaginable in peace. A worried America and Shia Iran have been cooperating against ISIS to an extent that neither would admit, and neither could forego.
They needed each other. Iran did not have the air capability that Pentagon could command, and America did not have boots that Iran could mobilise. While exact figures will always be disputed, Iran is estimated to have sent about 100,000 “volunteers” for the counteroffensive against ISIS. It is certain that without the leadership of Iranian generals and troops, Baghdad would probably have been lost. The success of the US-Iran offensive in the battle for Tikrit is a turning point. If Tikrit falls, then the battle for Mosul will begin.
The difficult part of expanding swamp wars is the inability to establish limits. The cooperation between America and Iran does not mean that they agree on all objectives. America has to consider the alarm bells ringing ferociously in Saudi Arabia, as it deals with an Iranian-backed Shia push in Yemen through the Houthi tribes. Success can tempt Iran towards a deniable advance in the Shia-heavy regions of Yemen and Bahrain. The Saudis and Sunni Arab governments can hardly remain immobile. The ideal American scenario would be to restrict Iran to the conflict in Iraq, but Washington is not writing every script in West Asia. West Asians have scriptwriters of their own, many of them with memories that go back 1,400 years.
A multi-national, multi-dimensional conflagration such as the one raging between half of Asia and half of Africa is not going to come under control simply because someone in Washington believes that fire is harmful. Conflict resolution can at best be only a piecemeal exercise. But when one piece does fall into place, then it would be churlish not to recognise it, and indeed consider ourselves fortunate that there is some corner in which sense has prevailed.
Statutory warning to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee: Please do not hand over a second Nobel. One is good enough for the Obama shelf. A prize might be offered to Ayatollah Khamenei, however, though I wonder if he would accept it. He would probably have a good laugh.