IRAN NUKES DEAL

hour glass 1 (Willi Heidlebach)Behind the cautious rhetoric from President Obama about reaching an agreement with Iran on its nuclear energy program, you don’t have to listen very hard to know that he really wants a deal. And for more than a year now, the public pronouncements about the talks from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seem to indicate that he has the same hope. But Rouhani’s most recent comment, made in Tehran, is instructive for both the United States and Iran.

As talks between Iran and the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) wind down in Vienna this week, with the November 24 deadline fast approaching, the U.S. and Iran held a session of bilateral talks on the deal. In Tehran on Wednesday, November 19, Rouhani said that if “the opposite party in the negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran has the political will for a deal and avoids excessive demands, the conditions are prepared for the conclusion of a deal.” Apparently this means that the key players in Tehran are of one mind on core issues.

But this may be a misleading assumption. Although Rouhani and his team of nuclear negotiators are of a moderate political persuasion, at least according to Middle East lights, and may indeed be united in reaching an agreement, they have been battling strong opposition to a deal from political hardliners in the regime. And of course the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has the make-or-break authority on any international deal. (For the record, he has stated many times that Iran does not want nuclear weapons because it is against Islamic law.)

Concurrently in the States, as Obama’s team seeks to reach an agreement, it too has been facing strong and sustained opposition from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and at home from political hardliners in Congress, the Jewish lobby, and talk radio pundits. The word “compromise” is anathema to the “anti-deal” groups, who are unable, or unwilling, to see the wisdom of keeping diplomacy going in order to bring this cliffhanger to an equitable agreement.

I wrote several posts, beginning here, about the serious ramifications that followed for many years after the George W. Bush administration’s diplomatic snub of Iran in 2003. When Iran reached out to the United States in 2003, Iran had a reform-minded president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami, and a foreign policy team that sought, under Khatami’s leadership, cooperation with America and the rest of the West. The Bush White House rudely nixed further progress on that.

Now that the two states have been holding high-level talks for more than a year, a fair and just agreement must not be lost by the two president’s caving in at the last minute to the opposition groups.

If an agreement cannot be reached by the November 24 deadline, the talks should be extended to iron out the minutia. If an agreement is not reached and the talks end sans an extension, potential for cooperation between the West and Iran may be set back for years if not for decades.

Worse, hardliners in the U.S. who have been calling for bombing Iran may then get their way. If so, the hardliners in Iran will have the excuse they have been waiting for, as they had in 2003 with Khatami, to blackball the moderate Rouhani and install another Ahmadinejad. Worse still, you won’t like the blowback to the bombing.

Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Outside the meeting rooms of power, we ordinary mortals can feel so helpless in these situations. But there is an old saying: Prayer changes things. If you are a praying person, pray that the two presidents will succeed.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Willi Heidelbach (permission via Creative Commons)

DIPLOMACY, TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Nobody would accuse the former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of being diplomatic. His bombastic and inflammatory rhetoric toward, in particular, Israel and the United States, was meant to keep Iran’s alienation from those nations intact. On the other hand, not a few voices in America wisdom wayaccuse President Obama of being too diplomatic. This was especially true when he formally reached out to Iran in 2009, in an effort to start building bridges, and in 2013, when he chose diplomacy over military action to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

Ahmadinejad was following in the steps a long list of state ideologues who are blind to their coarse ignorance of the world. They have nothing to learn from adversaries. They know it all. For them it is: My way first, last, and always. End of story. When Obama reached out to talk in 2009, Washington and Tehran had not had embassy-level diplomatic relations with each other since 1979. Thirty years of formal diplomatic non-history is a “long time no talk,” and when adversarial states are not talking, gross misunderstandings arise.

So one of the parties chose to reach out diplomatically to get some face-to-face dialogue going to start clearing up misunderstandings. It was a wise gesture, skillfully done. Washington and Tehran still do not have an embassy in each other’s countries, but now that Obama has an interlocutor in the more diplomatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, we my be seeing at least some thawing of relations.

Diplomacy, and its most important activity, negotiations, dates back to times of villages and tribes, when, even then, spaces for cooperation and the exercise of goodwill between them had to be built. Treaties and other forms of agreement were needed, and then those had to be managed, adjusted, and sustained if conflict and war was to be avoided and trade promoted. Later, with the rise of the so-called great states of the ancient Near East, such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria, more formalized diplomatic relations developed. Although adequate to the times, we would see it as rudimentary, and perhaps not as developed as it could have been if travel and communications had been as easy as it is today.

Amarna letterNevertheless, a fascinating work of scholarship, Armana Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations, discusses an unusually large cache of diplomatic letters found in Egypt at the ancient royal city of Amarna. The letters detail a remarkably long period of cooperation among Egypt and other the great powers of the time, three to four centuries before the founding of the kingdom of Israel.

Today, as then, ambassadors, diplomats, negotiators, mediators, and relevant others need great skill in communications, a deep knowledge of each other’s cultures and politics, and a good handle on the actual problems if they hope to get the parties to Yes. They must, for instance:

  • exercise boundless sensitivity to the parties’ problems and exercise great tact and pacing when working toward an agreement of mutual benefit;
  • demonstrate a professionalism that submerges their own ideologies to the good of the negotiating parties;
  • show themselves evenhanded, gaining the confidence of all sides, while helping the parties see reality as it is and adjust to it;
  • help negotiations to reach midpoints that both sides can accept, often by challenging what has been called the parties “comfortable myths”;
  • show empathy for the suffering and needs of the parties, helping each side “get” the other’s grievances;
  • have enormous tolerance for frustration, take setbacks in stride, not make provocative statements, but stay focused and keep going.

In short, they must be diplomatic. Imagine, for instance, the disastrous outcomes if foreign minsters of adversarial states met in crises to vent polemically or demonize each other.

We do not generally explore the biblical text for diplomatic insights, but in this series of posts on the first half of the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6), we have been trying to do just that. As a high-level official in the royal court of Babylonia, Daniel’s political career takes places within the diplomatic culture of the great powers of the old-world Middle East.

Although the Daniel text does not show us a Daniel conducting negotiations for Babylonia with his counterparts in other nations, we have no reason to doubt that he functioned in that capacity from time to time during his decades of government service in successive Babylonian governments. What is explicit in the text, however, is Daniel’s diplomatic skill in the royal court, especially as a negotiator. These are skills he certainly would have taken with him on the road for the king, were he sent to negotiate treaties.

Key elements of Daniel’s skill as a diplomat and negotiator correspond to those in the above list. We have insights into them from his life amid the intrigue of the royal court. We will look at these in the next several posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer