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The US, Iran, Disney and diplomacy
The negotiations that resume in Geneva this week between Iran and an American-led group of mostly Western nations represent another important opportunity to find that elusive middle ground between the concerns of both sides where they can reach agreement on a series of issues, including but not exclusively Iran’s development of nuclear technology.
I happened to be in Orlando and Tampa, Florida, for lectures and a few days of vacation this week on the eve of the talks. Orlando is best known for Disney World, and Tampa is the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command that manages all military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including the two ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Between central Florida’s frantic days of college football playoff selections and the always healthy tourism industry that sees around 50 million visitors a year, it is hard to garner any enthusiasm here or anywhere else in the United States for another active war in the Middle East against Iran. This is evident partly in the prevalent, rather quiet, manner in which the U.S. seems resigned to leaving Iraq and Afghanistan to a large extent in coming years, and partly in the intriguing words of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week at a regional meeting in Bahrain that was also attended by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Addressing Mottaki directly, Clinton said she was “pleased to have this opportunity for your government and mine to gather here with representatives from other nations to discuss problems of mutual interest and concern”.
She said she hoped Iran would come to the Geneva talks “as we will, in good faith and prepared to engage constructively on [the] nuclear programme”, adding that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear programme and urging it to make the choice “to restore the confidence of the international community and live up to your obligations as a peaceful nuclear power”.
She said the United States’ firm commitment to engage constructively with Iran was coupled with an “iron-clad commitment to defending global security”, and ended with the thought that “the world in turn would benefit from the full participation of the Iranian nation in the political social, and economic life of the region”.
This is intriguing stuff because it seems to signal some subtle adjustments in the American rhetoric on Iran - not surprising, given that sensible and practical Americans are always willing to discard or adjust failed practices.
Clinton did well to mention Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power and that Iran and the U.S.-led side must discuss “a range of issues” - acknowledging Iran’s insistence that its world and concerns include issues other than spinning centrifuges.
This is an important sign of a potential positive frame for these talks, which will only succeed if both sides feel their key concerns are addressed with equal weight.
It’s mostly downhill from there in Clinton’s comments, however. Her exhortation for Iran to live up to obligations on peaceful use of nuclear technology was not very credible, coming from the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Japan in the most gruesome way possible.
Her one-way admonition on “restoring confidence” is not convincing, given that Iran and many others in the region are deeply dubious of American sincerity in this process, in view of several instances in recent years when the United States had a chance to break through to an agreement, but backed down for some reason.
Her coupling Washington’s will to engage with Iran with an “iron-clad commitment to defending global security” was about as self-destructive as diplomacy can get. Iranians will not take this process sincerely if they are a priori accused of threatening global security and judged guilty until proved innocent. No wonder, therefore, that another senior Iranian foreign policy official announced in Tehran this weekend that Iran has mastered more elements in the nuclear fuel cycle, including producing “yellow cake”. This is not diplomacy or culture, it is basic physics. Every action gets a reaction. Make a threat, get a threat.
Clinton’s suggestion that the world would benefit from “the full participation of the Iranian nation in the political, social and economic life of the region” made me feel that I was still in Disney World’s fantasy universe. Somebody should tell Clinton that Iran has participated deeply in the political, social and economic life of the Gulf, Middle East and Central and South Asian regions for approximately 3,000 years, and whisper to her that Iran has far deeper roots and shares stronger interests among Middle Eastern people and societies today than Donald Duck and Dennis Ross can ever imagine.
All in all, though, there is some positive movement in this dynamic, alongside the usual nonsense. Given the realities on both sides, this is probably as much as we can expect for the moment. Let’s hope that in the direct talks we get less nonsense and more sensible engagement from both sides.