If one day Iran succeeds in establishing normal relations with the Western world, it would create a sea change for the entire Middle East.
On October 15 and 16, Iran resumed negotiations in Geneva with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. Iranians appear keen on “closing an unnecessary crisis and opening new horizons”, to quote the title of the Iranian proposal.
President Obama announced his readiness to relieve economic sanctions, if Tehran is “serious” about full transparency to international inspection. For good reasons, the European delegates asked for more “details” and evidence.
The largest, sticky issue is Iran’s right to enrich Uranium-for civilian use. Iran is ready to scale back enrichment and be open to international inspection. In return, Tehran wants relief from sanctions.
Why is this round of negotiations promising?
President Rouhani has a national mandate to introduce change. Western sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy. Revolts in the region have led the Iranian leadership to try a new approach at home and abroad.
Factors of moderation are not limited to Iran. The Islamic Republic’s allies are hurting too. Syria, Tehran’s closet ally, faces the threat of disintegration. Iran’s proxy warriors, Hizbullah and Hamas, are politically trapped: the former in Syria’s war and the latter by rejection from Egypt’s new regime.
A changing political climate in the West has helped the negotiations. In his second term President Obama is able to operate without excessive concern about Israel’s exaggerated fear of Iran. Obama’s new team in diplomacy, defense and national security believe in the use of “soft power”. Americans and Europeans are war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moving forward toward a resolution of the conflict is not simply a response to a suitable climate for negotiations. The many dividends of peace is worthy of maximal patience in exchange of views. Even if the political climate is not fully ripe, the immense benefits of a breakthrough should motivate negotiators to work hard to reach an agreement.
What are the expected rewards?
War between Israel, involving the U.S. and Iran, would be avoided. Tehran is key in the search for a solution to the Syrian tragedy. If Syria is stabilized, Lebanon and Jordan would escape border threats and eventual break up. The Shia-dominated regime in Iraq would be pressured to reform, if Iran emerges as a regional power. Washington needs the cooperation of Tehran in handling Afghanistan, a strategic neighbor state. Finally, Iran could begin to work out its problems with Saudi Arabia.
A secure Iran is much more likely to reconcile with the oil rich Arab states. Saudi-Iranian reconciliation would go a long way in reducing the growing Sunni-Shia sectarian tension, a pervasive and continuing source of regional instability.
In principle, the U.S. and Europe could agree with Iran on a low level of enrichment. But Israel, Washington’s closest ally, is keen on having Iran totally abandon its nuclear program. Regrettably, Israel’s diplomacy relies too often on the use or the threat of force.
President Rouhani and President Obama must work fast and hard to overcome efforts of opportunists who take advantage of war. There are certain leaders in the U.S. Congress who try to benefit electorally, aiming at appeasing the Jewish lobby, in demonizing Iran. Likewise, the powerful Revolutionary Guard in Iran is keen on stifling Rouhani’s initiatives to regain political power it lost in the June elections.
The conflict with Iran is of immense significance and partially psychological: Iran is too proud, as a regional power, and Israel is not willing to recognize the slightest beginnings of reform in Tehran. Yet, there is a silver lining. This conflict is solvable with creative diplomacy. The solution does not require the application of radical measures such as the redrawing of borders, withdrawal of troops, demanding religious tolerance or admission of guilt.
Cooler heads in Washington and Tehran must not be easily intimidated by forces of despair at home and abroad. In this round of dialogue, the Iranians seem to be trying their best to normalize relations with the world community.
Creative diplomacy is the art of integrating firmness with fairness.