July 20, 2008

A Good Week for Diplomacy

It’s been a pretty good week for us here at NIAC
The Bush Administration is planning to install the first US diplomats in Iran since the hostage crisis.  The third-highest ranking official in the State Department sat down with Iran to negotiate over the nuclear issue, reversing years of stubborn and counterproductive policy.  For the first time, a presidential candidate has a special advisor for Iranian American issues.  And members of Congress and others in Washington are starting to realize–albeit slowly–that the time for isolating Iran in the hopes that all of our problems with them will just disappear is coming to an end.
That being said, there is still a long way to go.  The Senate is working on a new sanctions packageHConRes 362 is still picking up co-sponsors by the dozen (up to 247 now).  And most of the news now is talking about how the talks in Geneva on Saturday didn’t produce anything substantive
But I remain an optimist for a few reasons. 

First, it should come as no surprise that this one day of talks didn’t produce a breakthrough.  The purpose of this round of talks was for Iran to give its response to the latest incentives package.  The P5+1 were just there to listen–the US didn’t send Burns to contribute to the negotiations in any substantial way at all.  His presence at the table was the contribution–and it was an important one, in my view.  The way Trita explains it, it will take a few rounds of talks that include the US for anything to actually happen.  After the third or fourth round, it’s not newsworthy anymore that we’re a part of the negotiations.  And that’s the point when we can really get down to business.  So patience is important.
Second, I think it’s interesting how a lot of this came about when it did.  As with everything that involves Iranian politics, the last few weeks have been complicated with seemingly contradictory signals coming from both sides simultaneously.  First there was Israel’s military excercise that simulated a strike on Iranian nuclear sites, and the escalating rhetoric from the US, Iran, and Israel about a possible military confrontation; but that was also followed by senior US and Iranian officials both trying to reiterate the need for a diplomatic solution, and then the news about the US interests section and a diplomatic envoy. 
It’s interesting how the littlest things can create important openings.  After last week’s missile test in Iran, the media picked up a bizarre story that we reported on here at niacINsight: the Revolutionary Guard photoshopped an extra missile into the picture it released to world news outlets.  I think it’s important not to overlook just how embarrassing this must have been for the IRGC.  To be humiliated on a global stage–about a military matter, no less–and all because of something so…well…dumb. 
Now, I’m not privy to any insider information from the White House.  But I think it’s possible that this humiliation for the IRGC played a part in the timing for Washington’s opening up to Iran.  The Bush administration has been considering a US interests section for at least 2 years.  And no one expected the US to cave in on its demand that Iran halt its uranium enrichment before we join any talks.  But humiliation is a powerful tool in international relations.  If you can offer your opponent a chance to save face while also meeting your objective, chances are you can make some real progress. 
Sitting down with Amb. Burns does two things at once–it signals to the international community and Iran that the US is serious about resolving the conflict through negotiations; and it gives Iran the chance to make some real concessions while still saving face because the US came to them, not the other way around.  With more time, and probably a little luck, this freeze-for-freeze proposal could gain some traction.  Ideally, Iran will agree to stop expanding its uranium enrichment program, in return for which the P5+1 will agree to stop pursuing additional UN Security Council sanctions.  That should give both sides the breathing room to negotiate an actual suspension of Iran’s enrichment program until a solution can be worked out that will involve some sort of international inspections regime to guarantee Iran’s nuclear program remains for peaceful purpose only.  Hopefully it will be something like Amb. Pickering’s proposal from earlier this year. 
So I think, for the first time in awhile, there looks to be real reason for optimism–if not immediately, then soon. 
And though I could be wrong, it might just be because some guy in the IRGC thought it would make a better picture to have four missiles instead of three.  But you know what–I’ll take it.

Back to top