We need to recognize that this is an unprecedented diplomatic effort.
It is difficult to maintain much hope in humanity these days. The Islamic State is on a rampage in Iraq and Syria; Bashar al-Assad’s government continues to massacre its own people; the war in eastern Ukraine grinds on; even in the United States, where war feels like a distant notion, mass shootings have become a regular feature of modern life. More than ever before, peace seems an aberration — and conflict, the norm.
But there are bright spots. And there is one development, in particular, that may be a new frontier in humanity’s ability to be humane: The effort by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, to resolve the latter’s nuclear program through peaceful diplomacy.
Behind the wonky op-eds about enrichment, breakout capability, and sanctions relief, there is an innovative attempt to find a lasting peace that I believe is unparalleled. If the two sides manage to reach a deal by their June 30 deadline, their achievement will go beyond just preventing a war or blocking Iran’s paths to a bomb. The real achievement may be that a major international conflict — a conflict that has brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war in recent years — has been resolved through a compromise achieved by diplomacy.
This may sound unexceptional — isn’t that the work of diplomats, after all? — but if this feat is accomplished, few examples in history will match its magnitude. It is the norm that diplomacy settles a new peace after devastating carnage — not before.
There are four characteristics of the nuclear talks that make this case unique.
First, the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program is a major global dispute. It involves the entire international community, not just Iran’s neighbors. This is important because larger conflicts like this are rarely resolved through diplomacy without the various sides going to war first. And only the most extreme voices hold out that war with Iran would be quick and easy — most military experts believe it would be a massive, costly, and lengthy engagement with no certain outcome.
Second, the two sides were actually on the brink of war. War against Iran has been on the agenda in Washington since at least 2005. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate is credited with thwarting the George W. Bush administration’s plans — confirmed to me by administration officials — to attack Iran by revealing that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons program.
But the fear that Israel might launch an attack against Iran remained. President Barack Obama’s administration partially beefed up diplomacy in 2011 in order to deter Israel from launching an attack. In addition, by 2013, the Obama administration slowly came to the conclusion that the sanctions it had pursued were more likely to drag the United States into war than produce Iran’s capitulation. In June of that year, the Iranian people provided an exit from this escalation by electing Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, as president. Shortly thereafter, negotiations intensified. Prior to that, however, the conflict was not only heading toward war, but a military confrontation was at times closer than most people thought.
Third, the outcome of the negotiations will be the result of genuine compromise. This is perhaps the most astonishing characteristic of the ongoing diplomacy. Neither side is negotiating the terms of its defeat or capitulation; nor are they securing a zero-sum victory. They are, instead, defining the terms of their mutual victory — a “win-win” as the Iranians have cast it.
The contours of this compromise are well known and are unlikely to change dramatically in the final round of talks. The United States and the other interlocutors have discarded the “zero-enrichment” requirement, i.e. demanding that Iran dismantle all its centrifuges and cease all enrichment activities. This demand was at the center of the Western position for many years and was a key reason that earlier negotiations failed. Moreover, the West will suspend and then lift many of the sanctions it has imposed on Iran. The Iranians, in turn, will allow for unprecedented transparency measures while limiting their enrichment activities in both scope and degree for at least 10 years. The combination of limitations and transparency will close off all of Iran’s paths to a bomb.
The fourth and final reason this deal will be a unique achievement for world peace is because of its scope. It does more than just limit Iran’s nuclear program: It addresses the evolution of the broader relationship between Iran and the West. This conflict has always been about much more than nuclear enrichment, and while few would suggest that Iran and the United States are likely to form an open alliance, a transformation of their enmity is plausible.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, has said that the United States and Iran can, in a post-deal environment, “behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other.” If Iran and the United States can reach a détente and avoid getting entangled with each other, this would be a radical shift from their antagonistic rivalry of the past three decades. It wouldn’t necessarily be a partnership — much less an alliance — but their relationship would no longer be characterized by enmity, but rather by a truce.
Are there any other conflicts in modern history that fit these four characteristics?
The Cuban missile crisis may come close. A global conflict was on the verge of a massive war, and a tense standoff was resolved through talks that led to a mutual compromise. But on the fourth characteristic, transforming the nature of a historically antagonistic relationship, the missile crisis can’t compare with the Iran nuclear deal. After the crisis, Washington and Moscow remained in a tense and dangerous Cold War. Forget about partnership — that deal didn’t even produce a real truce.
Another possible example is Operation Brass Tacks. In November 1986, tensions between India and Pakistan climaxed, with India deploying400,000 troops within 100 miles of the border with Pakistan for a military exercise. It was a massive affair. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan felt threatened and put its military on high alert. A hotline between the two countries was activated, and officials from both sides tried to ease fears of an open conflict. The United States acted as a mediator and initiated high-level diplomacy that led to both a mutual withdrawal and an “Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities.”
This certainly serves as an example of impressive diplomacy, but it is still limited compared with the Iran deal. A war between India and Pakistan would have been disastrous, but it is unclear whether nuclear weapons would have been used. If not, it would have remained a regional rather than global conflict. Moreover, the true motivations behind the escalation remain unclear. Many scholars believe it was an accidental crisis driven bymisinterpretations rather than a desire for war. The two sides were playing a very high-stakes political game but were quick to de-escalate when opportunity arose.
Perhaps the most celebrated American diplomatic feat is the Shanghai Communiqué. Born out of President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 trip to China in the middle of the Cold War, the communiqué paved the way for the normalization of U.S.-China relations and created a framework for Beijing and Washington to resolve their differences — or to make sure their differences didn’t lead to conflict. The two sides also agreed that neither would seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The communiqué was indeed a diplomatic success that transformed U.S.-China relations. But compared with the Iran nuclear negotiations, it falls short on a major point: China and the United States were not on the brink of war. Rather, the United States cleverly took advantage of rising Russian-Chinese tensions to further the rift between the communist countries during the Cold War.
If the United States and its partners and Iran manage to come to a deal by end of this month, it will be a break from the pattern as old as humanity itself in which diplomacy is used to conclude, rather than prevent, war. It may prove a milestone, an important step toward making war, and not peace, the aberration.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.