December 18, 2013 4:31 pm

Diplomatic success always trumps a military victory

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The risk of failure carries catastrophic consequences, write William Luers and Thomas Pickering
A woman makes her way through the old bazaar, in Tehran Iran, on Sunday, May 12, 2013. Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's made a last minute surprise decision on Saturday to enter Iran's presidential election process, which now includes more than 680 hopefuls and will culminate June 14 with just a handful of names on the ballot to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In one of his first statements since joining the race, Rafsanjani spoke in general terms Sunday of seeking a new ``economic and political'' rebirth in a time of ``foreign threats and sanctions.'' (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)©AP

Diplomatic negotiations with Iran strike many Americans as an oxymoron. How could serious negotiations be conducted with a nation we have distrusted for decades, that has persisted in developing a nuclear programme, has threatened Israel and is involved in terrorist activities?

Yet the same Americans are quick to oppose a military solution. So the conclusion is that diplomacy must be tried. To help Americans understand that diplomacy can be used to manage some of the toughest problems, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have written an article endorsing diplomacy. It is hard to disagree.

“American diplomacy now has three major tasks,” they wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “To define a level of Iranian nuclear capacity limited to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards that ensure that this level is not exceeded; to leave open the possibility of a genuinely constructive relationship with Iran; to design a Middle East policy adjusted to new circumstances.”

These diplomats know what they are talking about. Each was instrumental in tectonic shifts in US foreign policy. Each has learnt that successful diplomacy always has more constructive results than war. Neither can be accused of failing to place national security in their thinking. There are lessons in their experiences that can open minds on the value of diplomacy with Iran.

Mr Kissinger’s leadership in facilitating the opening to China in the early 1970s stands as a model of diplomacy. Although he was at first a reluctant supporter of Richard Nixon’s decision to go to China, he executed the task with skill, tenacity and intelligence. Both China and the US contributed to that breakthrough. No deal is possible unless both sides want it. While historians will debate what other factors influenced the breakthrough, there is no dispute about the pivotal role of two of the world’s most talented diplomats of that era: Zhou Enlai, China’s foreign minister, and Mr Kissinger.

Mr Shultz was Ronald Reagan’s most loyal adviser during the cold war. Neither man was given to seek detente with the Soviet Union. But after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Reagan realised there might be new opportunities for diplomacy. There is still valid debate over how much of that breakthrough was down to Mr Gorbachev’s new attitudes and domestic needs, and how much to Reagan’s vision and tough policies. But when the creative diplomatic work had to be done, it was Mr Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, who met the challenge.

John Kerry today has a similar opportunity. He could follow the Kissinger-Shultz path and change through diplomacy US relations with a major adversary, which could have profound implications for America’s role in the world. Like his predecessors, Mr Kerry is taking a new direction set by his president. Barack Obama has personally believed that an opening with Tehran was not only possible but crucial to his commitment to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Shortly after learning that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, seemed willing to take significant steps to contain his country’s nuclear programme, Mr Obama made the decision to test Iran’s intentions.

Mr Kerry has in recent weeks engaged directly with Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, to determine what is possible. Given time, these diplomats could deliver an agreement to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons. Not unlike the situation with China and the USSR, it is hard to quantify how much of this shift comes from the tough sanctions regime against Iran and how much from Iran’s domestic policies. But the new government seems ready to achieve a peaceful settlement. Its challenge is to prove it is serious.

Given the rapidity of this shift, Americans and their congressional representatives seem politically and psychologically unprepared. They were, however, no more ready for the shifts in relations with China or the USSR. Iran has served as number one foreign adversary for the US since the end of the cold war, particularly during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

The concluding advice given by Mr Kissinger and Mr Shultz is visionary and instructive. “The next six months of diplomacy will be decisive ... We should be open to pursuing an agenda of long-term co-operation. But not without Iran dismantling a strategically significant portion of its nuclear infrastructure.”

Despite many doubts and cautions, America’s two most respected diplomats stand for diplomacy because they each know the risks yet the enormous benefits of success. Their endorsement of diplomacy now helps to build the bipartisan support needed to learn whether the US can achieve a breakthrough in the long and dangerous stand-off with Iran.

The writers are respectively director of the Iran Project and former US ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia; and former US undersecretary of state and ambassador to Israel, Russia, India, the UN and Jordan

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Letters in response to this article:

After 34 years, is it a new beginning? / From Mr John Starrels

The absence of war is not the same as peace / From Mr Joseph J Honick

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