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Historicizing Barack Obama

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Barack Obama and Dwight D. Eisenhower


In 2015, the P5+1 powers (the UN Security Council and Germany) negotiated a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons-making capabilities. American President Barack Obama considered the JCPOA one of the major triumphs of his administration. Opponents of the agreement argued that it established a dangerous diplomatic and historical precedent and/or that the JCPOA enabled and emboldened Iran to develop nuclear weapons.i This article will compare the JCPOA to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. “Atoms for Peace” encouraged international cooperation to regulate atomic energy and weapons. The JPCOA borrowed from the principals of “Atoms for Peace” and subsequent Cold War-era policy; these successfully established avenues of diplomatic cooperation between the US and USSR. Therefore, the JCPOA did not necessarily set a new or dangerous precedent in US foreign policy. Successes in Cold War-era US-USSR diplomacy suggest that the JCPOA has potential to foster a working relationship between Iran and the West.


The “Atoms for Peace” program was established in 1953. Much of the world feared and distrusted atomic energy. The USSR and US had a complete monopoly over nuclear resources. In an effort to diffuse tensions, President Eisenhower delivered a speech before the UN General Assembly that emphasized peaceful applications of atomic energy and demanded regulation of nuclear arms. Following this speech, the US launched a major information campaign to distribute knowledge of nuclear physics, as well as production resources (e.g., uranium), to many parts of the world. The program encouraged stronger relationships between nuclear and non-nuclear powers.


The JCPOA was built on principles similar to “Atoms for Peace.” Iran possessed an expansive network of nuclear facilities, used for both military and civilian applications. Iran openly sponsored anti-western Islamic extremist groups. Western powers feared that Iran would sell nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. JCPOA regulations limited specific aspects of the ore refinement process to allow Iran to maintain a nuclear program, without the capability to produce weapons.ii In exchange, crippling economic sanctions against Iran were relieved. Iran was encouraged to pursue a purely peaceful nuclear program, while cooperating with the West.


The ideological foundations provided by “Atoms for Peace” were integral to the development of arms regulations between the US and USSR. Eisenhower recognized the global responsibility of nuclear powers to regulate atomic energy and weapons. “Atoms for Peace” argued for the creation of nuclear test-ban treaties, the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. These regulations enshrined lasting diplomatic agreement between Cold War-era enemies.


Cold-War era nuclear regulations were effective. Regulations on US-USSR nuclear programs and the proliferation of weapons endured to the present day, enforced by the IAEA. Diplomatic agreements on atomic energy encouraged further cooperation from enemy powers. The US and USSR developed economic connections as the Cold War progressed. As testament to the success of these regulations, the US and Russia were key negotiating partners on the JCPOA, and the talks were chaired and enforced by the IAEA.


The JCPOA has the potential to encourage similar diplomatic cooperation between the Western World and Iran. Obama responded to skeptics of the deal by emphasizing the success of Cold War-era policies between the US and USSR. Russia was once considered an “evil empire,”iii similar to Iran. At the time of writing, the nuclear deal has already encouraged some diplomatic cooperation between Iran and the US.


In conclusion, “Atoms for Peace” was successful in the long-term. The US and USSR developed a working, diplomatic relationship. This precedent in Cold War-era diplomacy is hopeful for the potential of the JCPOA.