When diplomacy wins

Diplomacy prevailed encouragingly in Geneva last weekend. The small but highly significant breakthrough in talks between Iran, on the one hand and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, on the other, may well have reaffirmed a measure of faith in the diplomatic option as a mechanism for settling differences.

In the wake of that development, a second one hovered on the horizon after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced that Syria’s government and opposition would attend peace talks for the first time in Geneva on January 22, 2014.

For however long it lasts, therefore, the breakthrough in Geneva over Tehran’s nuclear future was a breath of fresh air that marked a welcome change from the succession of diplomatic failures. Both the UN itself and the world’s most influential states have had to ensure international diplomacy’s continuing successes. The Obama administration, particularly, badly needed some positive diplomatic outcome. On whatever front that outcome came did not matter.

The drama in Geneva over the weekend had to do with the eleventh-hour sealing of the deal which, while not definitively putting an end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, at least puts a brake on the pace of its progress and provides for external inspections which, for the time being, neutralizes the country’s stockpile of enriched uranium.

More extended discourses will have to precede a decision on Iran’s long-term nuclear future. Meanwhile, two things are significant about the Geneva breakthrough. First, it opens a window of communication between Iran and the West which, given the prevailing tenuous circumstances, becomes doubly important. Secondly, it realizes a partial lifting of Western economic sanctions that have been hurting Iran deeply. Thirdly, it at least reduces the likelihood of a preemptive strike against Iran by an increasingly paranoid Israel.

When all that is at stake is taken account of, one might even go so far as saying that the agreement reached in Geneva ranks amongst the more important post-Cold War diplomatic settlements. A matter of weeks earlier the relationship between the US and the Middle East was being driven by an unmistakable threat by Washington to engage the Syrian regime militarily over its stockpile of chemical weapons. It is a matter of particular irony, that Iran, Syria’s most important ally in its ongoing civil war, is part of a breath of fresh air which (who knows) may well have lit the spark that shows the route to meaningful engagement in the talks on ending the Syrian crisis.

The Israel factor cannot be ruled out. Tel Aviv’s preoccupation with snuffing out any potential nuclear capability that Teheran might have is not a matter that can be taken lightly. After all, Israel has been known to take considerable risks to respond to what it perceives to be threats to its national security. It should be noted too that Israel has been doing its best – with no great success so far – to prod the West into rejecting Iran’s recent détente initiatives. What Israel really wants, it seems, is to be left to its own devices as far as Iran is concerned. The West cannot afford to take that risk.

The Geneva Agreement did not come entirely out of the blue. It had been preceded by the emergence of a more moderate President in Iran and the launch of a highly-publicized and highly successful diplomatic initiative by the new head of state that targeted the United States and the West as a whole. That was the groundwork for the engagements in Geneva. After years of anti-Western rhetoric the Iranian diplomatic offensive had to get over the hurdle of understandable suspicion in the West. That considered, Iran can accord its diplomacy a significant pass mark.

What also helped make the Geneva deal possible was the fact that, first, the West and particularly the US, had come to recognize the importance of settling the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions even at the cost of ignoring Israel’s protestations. There can now be no doubt the long-soured US/Iran relations coupled with economic sanctions notwithstanding, Iran has strengthened its hand as a power in the Middle East to an extent that Washington can no longer ignore. Iran, on the other hand, by its own admission, has been hurt by sanctions which include the freezing of billions of dollars in funds in foreign banks and lack of access to trade in minerals, petrochemicals, as well as the ability to purchase key equipment including aircraft parts.  As it turns out, what we have is an interim arrangement that requires Tehran to cap its nuclear activity in exchange for a limited lifting of sanctions. Both sides get something.

Starved for years of any meaningful success arising out of diplomatic engagement on any critical international issue – the Syrian crisis being the most poignant current case in point – diplomatic watchers were inclined to talk up the breakthrough in Geneva which has effectively broken through a decade of standoff between Iran and the West; and even if the longer-term outcome of last weekend’s events in Geneva cannot be predicted, that does not diminish the significance of the deal that has been reached.

The sense of celebration that has attended the diplomatic breakthrough has, not surprisingly, been tempered by a clear note of caution sounded particularly by British Foreign Secretary William Hague who alluded to “a huge amount of agreement” existing alongside “remaining gaps” in the discourses. The British Foreign Secretary’s note of caution is hardly misplaced given the years of ill-will that have obtained  between Iran and the West; and yet, somehow, even that, does not diminish the significance of the moment.  After all, international diplomacy had, up until Geneva last weekend, chalked up an abysmal recent record in its pursuit of solutions to major international issues.

Around the Web