If you favor a forward, nonviolent strategy to tackle the Middle Eastern challenges of the 21st century, “diplomacy” is the only game in town. To illustrate my claim that, for us liberals of the Middle East, talk or negotiation with adversaries has become the only alternative for ending a row that has triggered regional tension, I shall discuss the recent shift in the US policy toward Iran.
When Senator Barack Obama expressed his readiness to pursue diplomacy with America’s adversaries should he win the November election, President Bush was quick to denounce such plans to engage the enemy, saying: “We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
On the contrary, various other great politicians—political figures who wanted to refrain from war—have done that. One of the key turning points in the peace process in the Middle East was Anwar Sadat’s momentous journey to Jerusalem in 1977 to meet face-to-face with Menachem Begin. Another notable diplomatic breakthrough was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Communist China. This was surely the result of Henry Kissinger’s and Richard Nixon’s readiness to go to Beijing for direct negotiations with Mao Zedong.
The attendance of Under Secretary of State William Burns in the Geneva talks is, indeed, a sign of not appeasement, but of realism. It is a crack in the US diplomatic door for giving negotiation a chance, or as the Middle Eastern proverb has it: “When the head of the camel enters the tent, the rest of it is bound to follow.”
I can crudely sum up the six-hour meeting by saying that the six world powers asked Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment for a so-called “freeze-for-freeze” offer which, boiled down to its essence says: you suspend your nuclear activities; at the same time we refrain from any new Security Council resolution on sanctions; plus, we work out a multilateral deal to develop nuclear energy for your civilian purpose, and lifting of sanctions.
The Iranians, who are, to put it mildly, still going strong, insisted that “suspension - there is no chance for that.” At the meeting, Iranians did not give a yes-or-no answer to the proposed "freeze-for-freeze" offer. At the same time they urged Western powers not turn away from negotiations. The six diplomats gave Iran two weeks to come up with answer, emphasizing that the given time-period is not an ultimatum.
The Iranian response seems to cancel out the desirability of negotiation over “military confrontation” in resolving the nuclear crisis by providing ammunition for those who advocate that diplomacy as a mean to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear bomb has always been a fantasy: “It will take military means.” In commenting over the US attendance in the Geneva talk, John Bolton, a neoconservative and Mr Bush’s former Ambassador to the UN, told The Times: “This is a complete U-turn and very disappointing to say the least.” (…) “Under the freeze-for-freeze deal Iran only has to not increase its nuclear material. This is an acknowledgment and validation of its existing enrichment activities.”
Of course, proposals to bring nuclear programs under multilateral supervision are neither new nor few in number. What is new is the political space that has recently emerged and become ripped for the implementation of any of these alternative plans. This new political space represents three objective conditions and one subjective one.
First, the December National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) said Tehran had halted development of nuclear weapons in 2003. Moreover, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report suggests that progress has been made by Iran.
Second, the improvement in US–Iranian relations over Iraq policy, which was the result of direct talks, has given a great boost to the American surge strategy in Iraq.
Third, the failure of the strategy of containment and sanctions to persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment in line with Security Council demands. Nicholas Burns, US undersecretary of state, believes that “Iran’s work on enrichment - which can produce both nuclear fuel and weapons grade material - was “outpacing” the sanctions.” This is because Iranian political elites rightly believe in what Nietzsche once said: What does not kill me, makes me stronger!
Fourth, for good reason, if all credible experts on Iran and the Middle East agree on anything it is this: offer Iran a chance for a resumed relationship (Ray Takeyh and Joseph Cirincione); make a direct, unconditional talks between Washington and Tehran (Reuel Marc Gerecht); and, the reward of such negotiations will be a more stable and peaceful Middle East (William Luers, Thomas R. Pickering, Jim Walsh).
Napoleon once said to understand the policy of a country, look at the map. Unlike most states in the region, Iran was not born this century. It is the world’s second-oldest state after China. If the US offers Iran nothing but sticks, the Iranians are going to say, “Screw you and the horse you rode in on.”
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