In a TIME blog, ‘Obama seeks to cool war fever while keeping up pressure on Iran’, Tony Karon notes that the least developed aspect of the Administration’s strategy is that of diplomacy.

Maxi Schoeman
Date published on SAFPI: 
Thursday, 16 February, 2012
Publication date of source: 
Thursday, 16 February, 2012

IBSA on Iran - can we make a difference?

Series title: 
SAFPI Commentary No 01

In a TIME blog, ‘Obama seeks to cool war fever while keeping up pressure on Iran’, Tony Karon notes that the least developed aspect of the Administration’s strategy is that of diplomacy. The communication channel is the EU-led P5 plus 1 forum (the US, Russia, France, UK, China and Germany) which has so far concentrated mainly on previous demands and escalating sanctions. In the mean time Israel is threatening to launch a military attack, insisting that they have the right to make such a decision without interference from other countries. In the US there is a strong lobby urging a military attack on Iran, though it would seem that neither the Administration, nor the Pentagon has much appetite for such a course of action. Nevertheless, Obama will come under immense pressure over the next several months in the run-up to the presidential elections: the Republicans would use the Iran case to portray the President as being soft on American security by not taking drastic steps to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme. Of course, should Obama sanction a military strike, Republicans would probably crucify him for being a warmonger. Clearly, the Obama administration is somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The EU-led forum dealing with Iran might not at this stage be the ideal method of promoting a diplomatic solution to the problem. The Iranians show little interest in continuing the talks, and the international opprobrium against their program is feeding defiance from the regime, and serves to unite an otherwise deeply divided society. In fact, continued resistance to Western-led demands might be of as great importance to Iranian leaders as is their nuclear aspirations, as a common external enemy helps to focus attention on this ‘enemy’ rather than on internal political cleavages, unrest and suppression.

A military strike, whether by Israel or by the US, would be disastrous, to say the least. Political turmoil in the region (the Arab spring, the Syrian crisis, the problems in stabilising and promoting order and normality in Iraq, and, further afield the Afghan war and instability in Pakistan) would be greatly exacerbated by such a strike, probably plunging the whole region into an even worse period of violence, bloodshed and mayhem than already experienced.

A diplomatic strategy would require patience and sustained engagement. Maybe one of the problems with the current less-than-ideal diplomatic forum is that it is mainly overshadowed by Western powers versus Iranian intransigence with little leeway for compromise. One way of trying to intervene in order to build a more productive negotiating forum might be to bring in ‘new brokers’. South Africa, India and Brazil, all three of them as non-permanent Security Council members might conceivably be a trusted mediator using the good offices of IBSA. Brazil (together with Turkey) attempted a deal with Iran some two years ago. It did not work – maybe because it was not a mediating role and did not include the P5. It would be difficult for IBSA to negotiate with Iran and to then have the P5 (especially the US, UK and France) adopt an agreement in which they had not been involved.

Mediation, therefore, might be a more feasible approach. Such mediation would seek to first of all remove the ‘all options’-talk (code for ‘military strike’) by both parties from the agenda. Second, it would seek to move away from the current emphasis on previous demands, trying to set a new agenda which would facilitate compromise on both sides, allowing the Iranians to save face, rather than to be perceived to be backing down, and allowing Obama to also come away with some kind of victory.

Third, it would attempt, however difficult this might turn out to be, to involve Israel in discussions and relieve the US of the direct and indirect blackmail of Israeli sable rattling and threats of going it alone in terms of a military strike against Iran. This would also entail getting Israel to talk through the current nuclear imbalance in the region.  Only Israel has nuclear weapons. The problem is that an Iran with a nuclear capability would not balance Israel, but would actually lead to nuclear proliferation in the region. Already the Saudis, sworn enemies of Iran, have already announced that they, too, would ‘go nuclear’ should the Iranians develop nuclear weapons. The solution is not only to stop Iran, but to get the Israelis to give up their nuclear weapons – something which South Africa did, whilst Brazil has formally committed to a nuclear-free South America as far back as the 1967. These two countries are ideally placed to assist with negotiations. One option would be to try to negotiate an agreement with Israel and Iran that guarantees full US military support to whichever of the two comes under attack from the other. Radical? Perhaps, but the alarming pace at which some influential lobbyists in the US, and the Israeli government are hyping the idea of war against Iran calls for drastic and daring attempts.

Talking peace – the diplomatic route – is never easy, nor quick. It asks for patience and fortitude, but surely, anything is better than a match that would ignite a horrendous war in the Middle East? IBSA should step up to the plate, and flex its muscles, showing the world that it is willing to contribute to the search for peaceful solutions to conflicts. We cannot afford an Israeli-Iran, or a US-Iran war.

Fourth, an IBSA mediation effort would seek to find a genuine solution within the framework of international law – the NPT Treaty and its provisions for peaceful nuclear development, thereby underlying the fact that it is exactly because of politics that we need the rule of law, also internationally.

But, most importantly, a concerted IBSA effort would aim to restore a measure of trust between the negotiating parties, based on a better mutual understanding, especially on the part of Western states, of Iran’s fears and aspirations.

Prof. Schoeman is the Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Pretoria, and a grantee of SAFPI.

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