It’s been a remarkable couple of weeks as we watched the world turn to try diplomacy for resolving two major crises in the Middle East. President Obama exchanged correspondence with President Rouhani, marking the first time the United States and Iran have communicated directly since 1977. Secretary of State Kerry met with Iran’s new foreign minister about the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, just as two weeks earlier Kerry worked with Russia’s foreign minister to craft an agreement on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. There’s no certainty that these diplomatic initiatives will succeed, but if they do, they will save us and the Middle East from possible military actions, the consequences of which not only would be dangerous, but also unpredictable. What are the key principles and practices that maximize the chances that diplomacy works?
I was 20 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Fall 1962 when confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union over Russia providing missiles to Castro’s Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. After a month of high tension, the Soviet Union agreed to take back its missiles and President Kennedy lifted the naval blockade of Cuba. The popular, public perception was that Russia backed down because of the U.S. military threat, but later it came out that Kennedy had secretly agreed to pull U.S. missiles aimed at Russia out of Turkey in exchange for Russia pulling its missiles out of Cuba. That episode reveals four cardinal principles of most successful diplomacy: first, the two countries talk directly with each other; second, neither country is seeking to eliminate the other; third, both countries gain something substantial from making a deal; and fourth, sometimes secrecy helps diplomacy succeed.
Applying these principles to the case of U.S.-Russian cooperation about Syria, while obviously neither Russia nor the U.S. was aiming to eliminate the other, for most of the Syrian civil war, each country acted as if it didn’t need to work with the other to achieve at least some of its goals. Prematurely and publicly committed to the goal that “Assad must go,” the U.S. rallied countries to support the rebels, even while the Obama administration wisely resisted calls for more direct U.S. military involvement. Committed to protecting Russian influence in Syria by preserving some version of the Syrian regime, with or without Assad, Russia used its veto to block resolutions in the U.N. Security Council to authorize military action that would threaten the regime. After 100,000 deaths and more than a million refugees, the dangers posed by growing involvement of Al-Qaeda-affiliated factions in the civil war, the destabilizing effects of the war on neighboring countries, and especially the actual use of chemical weapons finally gave the U.S. and Russia enough perceived common interests to cooperate, first on crafting a tough initiative to remove and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and then, hopefully, on framing a new Geneva conference to end the civil war and gain agreement on a plan involving substantial elements of the regime and the rebel forces for a political transition to more popular, democratic rule. Russia pressured President Assad to agree to give up his chemical weapons and the U.S. dropped its demand that Assad must go before a new Geneva conference. To enhance chances for success, some of the diplomacy necessarily is being carried out in secret.
Applying the principles for successful diplomacy to the crisis with Iran, after a break in diplomatic relations for 34 years, the first obvious positive sign is that the U.S and Iran are engaged in direct contacts. An interesting background story that may have contributed to this development is that U.N. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, formerly U.S. assistant secretary of state, visited Iran on Aug. 26 and met with Iran’s new foreign minister to discuss the Syrian crisis and the crisis related to Iran’s nuclear program. After all the hostile, threatening rhetoric between leaders of Iran and the U.S., direct, mostly secret discussions are proceeding, and both President Obama and President Rohani have said that dialogue between the U.S. and Iran will be “on the basis of mutual respect.”
Substantively, what the U.S. (as part of the P-5, plus Germany group) and Iran have to give and gain for negotiations to succeed is quite clear. While insisting on its right under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty to carry on some level of enrichment, Iran will likely have to compromise on the level and permit the kind of thoroughly transparent inspections by the IAEA that would assure the world community that Iran is not hiding the development of nuclear weapons. In exchange for Iran’s agreement on these issues, for its part the U.S.-led group would have to be willing to lift sanctions that are taking a terrible toll on Iran’s economy. On the separate issue of a new Geneva conference to resolve the civil war in Syria, like all the other outside countries backing one side or the other in the war, Iran would need to be a participant in the conference.
While hardliners in Russia, Iran and the United States will express cynicism and suspicion, I believe most people in all three countries are thankful and hopeful for giving diplomacy a chance.
Ron Young is consultant to the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI). Ron lives in Everett and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.