‘No matter what you think of it, this is a historic deal,” Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies told the New York Times last week, describing the interim accord in Geneva with Iran over its nuclear programme. “It is a major seismic shift in the region. It rearranges the entire chess board.”
It is not only that the map of the Middle East might be transformed. There is a wider significance. The fact of any agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the US, after three decades of intense friction, is a significant achievement for diplomacy at the end of a period where the default position for so long has been to use American military power to solve problems.
After the years of “war-war”, “jaw-jaw” – international diplomacy – is back on the menu. In the words of a US foreign policy adviser last week: “We’ve shifted from a very military face on our foreign policy to a very diplomatic face.”
Although Barack Obama has been much criticised in certain circles for his use of drone warfare, the desire for rapprochement with America’s opponents has long been a motivating factor, even if it has not come to much until now.
His campaign pledge from 2008 to reach out to America’s enemies and speak to any foreign leader without preconditions, reiterated in his speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar university in 2009 when he pledged a new relationship with Muslims, has floundered on the rocks of the Arab spring, the continuing war on terror, and beneath an avalanche of domestic and global economic problems. Obama promised, too, to press the reset button with Russia. The reasons for the failure to realise that ambition are more obvious: the first was the perception that Washington and its allies did not play straight in getting Moscow to sign up for a UN resolution authorising military intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds, which they turned into a justification for regime change, anathema to Putin and Russia.
Exacerbating that problem were growing differences over the war in Syria and Moscow’s bridling at the high-handed negotiating style of Hillary Clinton, America’s top diplomat.
Given these antecedents – and the opposition of two US allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia – scepticism that any deal could be done with Iran was, perhaps, inevitable. But now a deal has been done, what does that tell us about this new diplomatic moment?
The reality is that there are lessons to be learned both for the US and for its allies, not least the foreign policy of the prime minister, David Cameron.
Diplomacy, about which more cynical quotes exist than any other pursuit except save, perhaps, for journalism, is long winded and risky, full of compromises, gruelling and often lacking in glamour. It often requires, in dealing with apparently intractable problems, more than a bit of luck – a coincidence of personalities and circumstances and a willingness to leverage those opportunities.
Over Iran, those circumstances came together with the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, the emergence of new war-weariness in the west after the years of war, and in the shape of the EU principal load carrier in the talks in the shape of Baroness Ashton, as indefatigable as she is low profile and discreet. It is worth noting, too, that Israel’s clumsy and intransigent foreign policy under prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a deal easier by effectively writing its own objections ever further out of consideration.
While we have seen so far but a hint of a future and fuller detente with Iran, which may not happen, given the difficulties involved, the interim deal changes the mood music in international affairs far beyond the Middle East.
The engagement with Iran confirms a seriousness about negotiation long absent that could furnish a key for Syrian peace talks in a conflict destabilising an entire region. It sets up a transparent process that also – tantalisingly – offers the opportunity for Washington and Moscow to work constructively together.
If there is a lesson for the UK’s often confused, lacklustre and predominantly mercantilist foreign policy, which often appears more interested in drumming up business at any cost, denuded of any moral dimension, it is that there are issues worth grappling with in their own right, where hard work in the long run, not the knee-jerk recourse to bombers, can produce results. Indeed, David Cameron’s foreign policy pronouncements appear too often to have swung between two poles: between hasty and empty grandstanding, over the EU financial integration and Syria, and seeking to dodge difficult issues, including Sri Lanka over human rights and China and Tibet. It is not only that a middle way is necessary, but that it should have substance.
And the style of the Iranian diplomacy, not least the revelation last week that it was also in part the result of a secret line of communication between Washington and Tehran opened in August, confirms Geoffrey Howe’s dictum, aimed at Margaret Thatcher in 1985, that “megaphone diplomacy leads only to a dialogue of the deaf”. After a decade of threats of war and bellicose rhetoric and mutual mistrust on both sides, the small step forward has been made by talking.
“We’re testing diplomacy; we’re not resorting immediately to military conflict,” Obama said, defending the interim Iran deal last week, building on a theme he expressed earlier in the day: “Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically but it’s not the right thing for our security.”
And that in the end is the most important issue. The legacy of a period of elective wars designed to bringing stability has been ever more war and ever more instability. As war has failed, diplomacy has become a possibility again.
The events of the last week and more have underlined an important principle in international relations – that negotiation, even of the most drawn-out and problematic kind, can deliver incremental progress on apparently intractable problems.
It is a reminder that disarmament negotiations are always a process, rarely an end in themselves, and always preferable to military action. For that reason alone, all parties to this process should be congratulated.
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