Talk beats war: Give the Iranian deal a chance

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It is probably inevitable, given my background as a retired diplomat, that I would find negotiations in international affairs preferable to war as a means to resolve problems.

I also think that Americans, in the wake of the long, frustrating, expensive and relatively unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the dire financial straits in which the country finds itself, would rather have Secretary of State John Kerry dashing around the world trying to solve problems through negotiations, as opposed to the U.S. military sending carrier battle groups to the shores of this country or that to threaten U.S. invasions. Think of the gas, if nothing else.

In that context, Americans should rejoice at the temporary agreement that the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — plus Germany arrived at in Geneva last week with Iran to put the collar on Iran’s nuclear program for at least six months.

This was pure multilateral diplomacy at its best. Getting China and Russia to row in the same direction as America, Britain, France and Germany was a feat in its own right, as demonstrated by France’s putting the cat among the pigeons during the first round of the talks, thus preventing agreement.

Getting Iran to agree to play ball in an international agreement with clear disadvantages in it for the Islamic republic was, again, an impressive feat. That it did so was a tribute to the skillful diplomacy that put together the sanctions that tightened the noose on Iran’s economy and served as an incentive to play ball on the nuclear accord. The United States might like to think that the economic sanctions it alone applied would have dragged the Iranians to the negotiating table. The reality is that when the European Union also tightened the screws on Iran’s financial and oil sectors, the ayatollahs came to Geneva ready to deal.

Don’t worry, much more remains in the application of still-existing sanctions or in the ability to restore pressures now being removed to keep the Iranians motivated to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency oversight of their nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is having a public conniption fit over the accord, which he says he considers not tough enough on the Iranians. The threat is that he will use his influence on Congress to cause it to upset the apple cart of the agreement. In fact, he and Israel should be pleased at the reduction in Iran’s possible threat to Israel’s long-term well-being that may be presaged by both the Geneva agreement and the general re-folding of Iran back into the world community of countries bound by international agreements.

For Mr. Netanyahu, and for some Israelis, the only correct American relationship with Iran would be war, not talks. War would serve the dual purpose for Israel of having America devote its attention to fighting one of Israel’s proclaimed enemies while not having the time or energy to bother Israel about working out a long-term agreement to share Palestine with the Palestinians.

There are now talks underway between the Israelis and Palestinians to work on the famous two-states-living-side-by-side-in-peace resolution of the problem. The talks could succeed. That is to say, an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could join the Iran accord of last week as another dangerous problem resolved by negotiation. Mr. Kerry will have played a crucial role in making this occur if it can be achieved. The danger at the moment is that Mr. Netanyahu will take the setback that his point of view suffered in Geneva as an excuse to torpedo the Israeli-Palestinian talks, blaming their failure on what he professes to consider the perfidious Americans.

What he does not seem to grasp is that in seeking a potentially stable long-term resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question, the United States is acting very much in the best interests of Israel. Israel should not imagine that the Palestinians will just go away. They have been there, and still want a state, 65 years after Israel was created. Do Israelis really wish to exist forever surrounded by states and peoples who feel wronged by them and hate them?

Other negotiations that seem to be hitting rockier ground include talks between the Syrian government of Bashar Assad and the various elements that comprise the Syrian opposition, which are now tentatively scheduled for Jan. 22. The Assad government has not yet agreed to a formula that would have Assad step down, a bottom-line demand of the opposition, divided as it is.

Other puzzles on Washington’s plate include how to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to finalize an agreement that allows U.S. troops to stay past 2014. I hope Washington doesn’t find a solution to that puzzle: It’s time to say goodbye to Afghanistan.

Yet another is how to get forward movement on climate change measures before water laps over Wall Street. I suppose I want them to solve that one.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).

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