The Power of Diplomacy

January 12, 2012

Against the backdrop of threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, the announcement of uranium enrichment at Iran’s Qom facility and the death of another Iranian nuclear scientist this week, the U.S. and its allies are pushing hard for a return to negotiations with Iran. Results-oriented diplomacy will be at the core of a lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. We have already seen the results of a strong diplomatic approach. As James Traub writes in the Washington Monthly, “Iran is much more isolated today than it was only a few years ago.” Top diplomats and regional experts are now calling for a strategic approach that provides Iran an exit ramp from escalation.

All sides look to balance rising tensions with return to negotiations. In response to the death of the Iranian scientist, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We believe that there has to be an understanding between Iran, its neighbors and the international community that finds a way forward for it to end its provocative behavior, end its search for nuclear weapons and rejoin the international community.” Yahoo’s Laura Rozen reports on the prospects for new international negotiaions: “The Obama administration and its European allies are quietly preparing for a possible new round of international nuclear talks with Iran in the coming weeks, sources consulted on the prospective meeting say. The prospective talks would be hosted by Turkey–and the preparations around them have taken shape amid heightened tension and heated rhetoric between the West and Iran, as Iran lashes out at planned new American and European sanctions that would choke off a key source of Iran’s revenues from oil exports. European and American officials say that no meeting has yet been agreed–and that a formal meeting date won’t be set in the absence of firm commitments in writing from Iran pledging to engage in serious negotiations. There will be no meeting ‘unless and until’ the Iranians send a ‘letter that makes clear their intentions to engage seriously,’ a U.S. administration official told Yahoo News Wednesday. American officials haven’t seen such a letter to date. Iran watchers say they think a meeting is likely to materialize–in spite of the considerable diplomatic difficulties involved in obtaining Tehran’s written assent to the plan for the talks.” [Hillary Clinton via NY Times, 1/12/11. Laura Rozen, Yahoo! News, 1/11/12]

Experts seek a diplomatic solution, though it will be difficult work. Diplomacy does not provide a “quick fix,” yet does provide the results-oriented path to resolving the situation with Iran. A recent letter from former senior military, intelligence and diplomatic officials states that, “We recognize that achieving an agreement with Iran to fulfill its international obligations and provide full transparency over its nuclear activities is no easy task. The disappointing conclusion to the last P5+1 meeting with Iran in Istanbul showed that Tehran needs to be much more serious about a negotiated solution.”  However, “The United States needs to reinvigorate the diplomatic initiative at this critical juncture. International pressure on Iran is now at an all time high. Iran’s nuclear program is struggling to overcome technical problems. The time available must be used to convince Iran’s current and future leaders they stand to gain more from forgoing nuclear weapons than from any decision to build them.”

As William Luers and Thomas Pickering, two senior diplomats who dealt with our most hardened adversaries during the Cold War, explain, “History teaches that engagement and diplomacy pay dividends that military threats do not… Deploying diplomats with a strategy while maintaining some pressure on Iran will lower Tehran’s urgency to build a bomb and reduce the danger of conflict. The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action. Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost. [Arms Control Association Letter, 12/15/11. William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 1/1/12]

Negotiations need to provide an “off ramp” for Iran. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Iran expert Suzanne Maloney warns that America’s focus on pressure tactics is at odds with “its long-standing objective — a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” She explains, “As severe sanctions devastate Iran’s economy, Tehran will surely be encouraged to double down on its quest for the ultimate deterrent.” International negotiations should provide a “off ramp” for Iran.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, lays out one such path: “It is time for cooler heads to prevail with a strategy that helps Iran step back. The key players here are Brazil and Turkey, whose governments negotiated an ill-timed deal with Iran in May 2011, whereby Iran would transfer 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 1,200 kilograms of medium-enriched uranium for medical research at a Tehran reactor. That deal quickly fell apart, but it could be time to try again. The stage is already set in Turkey, which agreed on January 6 to host a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 group … A new deal would probably have to go beyond the swap proposed in May 2011, but there are other possibilities. For example, add Egypt and Qatar to the equation and bring in the UN to provide an umbrella for a proposed regional nuclear-fuel bank, to which Iran would make the first contribution. Bring in South Korea (a major customer for Iranian oil) and Russia and begin exploring options for a global fuel bank. And ensure that all countries in the region reaffirm the basic rules of freedom of navigation in a way that allows them to claim vindication.” [Suzanne Maloney, 1/5/12. Anne-Marie Slaughter, 1/9/12]

What We’re Reading

Arab League observers are quitting the regional group’s observer mission in Syria en masse.

The U.S. ranked 13th out of 32 countries in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s inaugural Nuclear Materials Security Index.

President Asif Ali Zardari left for Dubai for a one-day visit amid rising tensions and a political crisis between Pakistan’s military and civilian authorities.

Burma signed a ceasefire with the Karen National Liberation Army, ending a 62 year civil conflict.

The Afghan Taliban said it is open to peace talks but warned insurgents will continue armed struggle in the meantime.

Somali militants killed six and abducted three Kenyan officials in an attack near the border.

The new Moroccan prime minister voiced increased support for abortion rights in the country.

The European Union issued Hungary an ultimatum to modify power structures within its government.

The death toll in Mexico’s drug war has totaled 47,515 over the past five years.

Japan announced it will reduce oil imports from Iran.

Commentary of the Day

Lt. Col. Donna Lorraine Barlett explores the past pitfalls and current possibilities of efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The New York Times editorial board says a prolonged standoff between Pakistan’s military and civilian government would be bad for the U.S.

Dr. Lawrence Korb, Heather Hurlburt and Spencer Ackerman discuss what comes after the Pentagon’s strategic guidance.

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