We need to
recognize that this is an unprecedented diplomatic effort.
By Trita Parsi
Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
It is difficult to maintain much hope in humanity these days.
The Islamic State is on a rampage in Iraq and Syria; Bashar al-Assad’s
government continues to massacre its own people; the war in eastern Ukraine
grinds on; even in the United States, where war feels like a distant notion,
mass shootings have become a regular feature of modern life. More than ever
before, peace seems an aberration — and conflict, the norm.
But there are
bright spots. And there is one development, in particular, that may be a new
frontier in humanity’s ability to be humane: The effort by the permanent
members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany and Iran, to resolve the
latter’s nuclear program through peaceful diplomacy.
wonky op-eds about enrichment, breakout capability, and sanctions relief, there
is an innovative attempt to find a lasting peace that I believe is
unparalleled. If the two sides manage to reach a deal by their June 30
deadline, their achievement will go beyond just preventing a war or blocking
Iran’s paths to a bomb. The real achievement may be that a major international
conflict — a conflict that has brought the United States and Iran to the brink
of war in recent years — has been resolved through a compromise achieved by
This may sound
unexceptional — isn’t that the work of diplomats, after all? — but if this feat
is accomplished, few examples in history will match its magnitude. It is the
norm that diplomacy settles a new peace after devastating carnage — not before.
There are four
characteristics of the nuclear talks that make this case unique.
First, the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear
program is a major global dispute. It involves the entire international
community, not just Iran’s neighbors. This is important because larger
conflicts like this are rarely resolved through diplomacy without the various
sides going to war first. And only the most extreme voices hold out that war
with Iran would be quick and easy — most military experts believe it would be
a massive, costly, and lengthyengagement with no certainoutcome.
Second, the two sides were actually on the brink
of war. War against Iran has been on the agenda in Washington since at least
2005. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate is credited with thwarting the George W.
Bush administration’s plans — confirmed to me by administration officials — to
attack Iran by revealing that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded
that Iran did not have an active nuclear weapons
But the fear that Israel might launch an attack
against Iran remained. President Barack Obama’s administration partially beefed
up diplomacy in 2011 in order to deter Israel from launching an attack. In
addition, by 2013, the Obama administration slowly came to the conclusion that
the sanctions it had pursued were more likely to drag the United States
into war than produce Iran’s capitulation. In June of that year, the Iranian
people provided an exit from this escalation by electing Hassan Rouhani, a
moderate, as president. Shortly thereafter, negotiations intensified. Prior to
that, however, the conflict was not only heading toward war, but a military
confrontation was at times closer than most people thought.
Third, the outcome of the negotiations will be
the result of genuine compromise. This is perhaps the most astonishing
characteristic of the ongoing diplomacy. Neither side is negotiating the terms
of its defeat or capitulation; nor are they securing a zero-sum victory. They
are, instead, defining the terms of their mutual victory — a “win-win” as
the Iranians havecast it.
The contours of this compromise are well known
and are unlikely to change dramatically in the final round of talks. The United
States and the other interlocutors have discarded the “zero-enrichment”
requirement, i.e. demanding that Iran dismantle all its centrifuges and cease
all enrichment activities. This demand was at the center of the Western
position for many years and was a key reason that earlier negotiations failed.
Moreover, the West will suspend and then lift many of the sanctions it has imposed
on Iran. The Iranians, in turn, will allow for unprecedented transparency
measures while limiting their enrichment activities in both scope and degree
for at least 10 years. The combination of limitations and transparency will
close off all of Iran’s paths to a bomb.
The fourth and
final reason this deal will be a unique achievement for world peace is because
of its scope. It does more than just limit Iran’s nuclear program: It addresses
the evolution of the broader relationship between Iran and the West. This
conflict has always been about much more than nuclear enrichment, and while few
would suggest that Iran and the United States are likely to form an open
alliance, a transformation of their enmity is plausible.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security
Council, Ali Shamkhani,has said that the United States and Iran
can, in a post-deal environment, “behave in a way that they do not use their
energy against each other.” If Iran and the United States can reach a détente
and avoid getting entangled with each other, this would be a radical shift from
their antagonistic rivalry of the past three decades. It wouldn’t necessarily
be a partnership — much less an alliance — but their relationship would no
longer be characterized by enmity, but rather by a truce.
Are there any
other conflicts in modern history that fit these four characteristics?
missile crisis may come close. A global conflict was on the verge of a massive
war, and a tense standoff was resolved through talks that led to a mutual
compromise. But on the fourth characteristic, transforming the nature of a
historically antagonistic relationship, the missile crisis can’t compare with
the Iran nuclear deal. After the crisis, Washington and Moscow remained in a
tense and dangerous Cold War. Forget about partnership — that deal didn’t even
produce a real truce.
Another possible example is Operation Brass Tacks. In November 1986,
tensions between India and Pakistan climaxed, with India deploying400,000 troops within 100 miles of
the border with Pakistan for a military exercise. It was a massive affair.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan felt threatened and put its military on high alert. A
hotline between the two countries was activated, and officials from both sides
tried to ease fears of an open conflict. The United States acted as a mediator
and initiated high-level diplomacy that led to both a mutual withdrawal and an
“Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and
This certainly serves as an example of impressive
diplomacy, but it is still limited compared with the Iran deal. A war between
India and Pakistan would have been disastrous, but it is unclear whether
nuclear weapons would have been used. If not, it would have remained a regional
rather than global conflict. Moreover, the true motivations behind the
escalation remain unclear. Many scholars believe it was
an accidental crisis driven bymisinterpretations rather than a desire for war.
The two sides were playing a very high-stakes political game but were quick to
de-escalate when opportunity arose.
Perhaps the most celebrated American diplomatic feat is
the Shanghai Communiqué. Born out of President
Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 trip
to China in the middle of the Cold War, the communiqué paved the way for the
normalization of U.S.-China relations and created a framework for Beijing and
Washington to resolve their differences — or to make sure their differences
didn’t lead to conflict. The two sides also agreed that neither would seek
hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. The communiqué was indeed a diplomatic
success that transformed U.S.-China relations. But compared with the Iran
nuclear negotiations, it falls short on a major point: China and the United
States were not on the brink of war. Rather, the United States cleverly took
advantage of rising Russian-Chinese tensions to further the rift between the
communist countries during the Cold War.
If the United
States and its partners and Iran manage to come to a deal by end of this month,
it will be a break from the pattern as old as humanity itself in which
diplomacy is used to conclude, rather than prevent, war. It may prove a
milestone, an important step toward making war, and not peace, the aberration.