Good enough

President Obama deserves credit for calling Iranian President Rouhani and beginning to break the ice that has existed between leaders of the two countries for more than 30 years. Both sides seem ready now for direct talks to negotiate a solution to the nuclear standoff.

But a difficult road lies ahead, with many bumps, and obstacles being created by unreasonable demands. Prime Minister Netanyahu is again raising alarms about Iran’s nuclear program, never mentioning Israel’s nuclear weapons. Iran bashers in Congress are preparing new legislation to impose even more sanctions, going in exactly the opposite direction of what is needed now to get Iranian agreement—an offer of sanctions relief, in exchange for limits on uranium enrichment and more robust monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Some former officials are asserting that greater transparency is not enough. Gary Samore, former White House nuclear adviser, asserts that the price of easing sanctions for Iran must be dismantling major nuclear facilities, including the almost-completed multi-billion dollar heavy-water reactor at Arak and the underground enrichment site at Fordo. These are demands that go beyond the terms of UN Security Council resolutions, which call for greater cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and a suspension of enrichment and construction at heavy-water sites, but which make no mention of dismantling nuclear facilities, which in any case are currently under international inspection. Presumably after a negotiated agreement they would be under even tighter monitoring.

The claim that Iran could rush to build a bomb without international detection has no basis in empirical fact. Of course absolute certainty is impossible. Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ can’t be disproved, but neither can they be asserted as realistic threats.

In an ideal world, yes, we might all wish to see Iran without significant nuclear potential, but that is neither feasible not necessary in the near term. The immediate objective is to negotiate an agreement in which Iran accepts limits on its enrichment program and allows sufficiently robust and intrusive monitoring to provide firm assurances that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.

Such a settlement would be good enough and would allay fears about an Iranian bomb. It might also help to lay the foundation for other steps toward cooperation with Tehran, for example working together (and with Russia) to end the civil war in Syria and making sure that Taliban rebels do not take over in Afghanistan as the U.S. leaves.

All of this may seem a dream at the moment, given the hostility toward Iran of many current and former officials in Washington, but the envisioned process, if it could be realized, would be better for the security of both countries, and for Israel.

Suspending sanctions: The key to diplomatic engagement with Iran

It’s a ‘head spinning’ moment in Washington, according to a senior American diplomat quoted in today’s New York Times. Diplomacy is on the rise. A negotiated agreement has replaced military threats in Syria, at least for the moment, and the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran looms on the horizon.

President Obama will be speaking at the UN on Tuesday, and so will Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The signals from Iran have been encouraging of late, with Rouhani promising ‘constructive engagement’ and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei urging ‘heroic leniency’ in talks with the West.

Achieving progress with Iran will be difficult given the deep differences between Washington and Tehran. Each side will need to make a conciliatory gesture to break the ice. Iran desperately wants sanctions relief and would probably offer significant concessions in return for an easing of economic pressure.

President Obama is reportedly reluctant to offer sanctions relief until Iran agrees to negotiated limits on its nuclear program. Maintaining the leverage of sanctions makes sense, but this does not preclude the option of offering partial sanctions relief now to get the bargaining process underway.

A decision to suspend non-military sanctions could open the door to significant Iranian concessions. As George Lopez and I argue, some non-military sanctions could be suspended for an initial period of six months, which could be renewed if Iran responds positively with concrete limitations on its nuclear program.

The decision to suspend some sanctions could be combined with an indication that other sanctions will be lifted on a step-by-step basis if the Iranian side reciprocates in establishing greater transparency and binding limits on its nuclear program. The advantage of sanctions suspension is that it allows for quickly re-activating sanctions if Iran does not respond in kind or attempts to exploit the gesture. It is a way of offering what the Iranians want most and provides a concrete test of their declared sincerity in building more constructive relations with the international community.

Are military threats necessary for diplomacy?

Leaders in Washington claim that the threat of military force was necessary to achieve the agreement with Russia on securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. If the lesson drawn from this is that military threats work, the obvious conclusion is to use more of the same—which is why some in Washington are calling for a Security Council resolution that includes a threat to use force.

There is no doubt that Obama’s threat to bomb Syria gave urgency to the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, but this does not mean that military threats were necessary in this case or are the best way to reach diplomatic agreement or achieve disarmament. Discussions with Russia on a joint plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons began more than a year ago. A deal could have been reached months earlier if interest in a negotiated solution had been greater.

According to a report in USA Today, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin first discussed the idea of a diplomatic plan to secure Syria’s chemical weapons in June 2012 while attending the economic summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov followed up on the idea during meetings in Moscow this spring and again in Washington in early August. Diplomacy might have worked without the threat of force if Washington had taken advantage of the opportunity to work with Moscow.

Many U.S. officials believe that military threats are necessary generally for the success of diplomacy, but the evidence suggests otherwise. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, two major studies on the subject show that threat-based diplomacy works only about 30 per cent of the time.

The United Nations has an impressive record of achieving diplomatic agreement in many cases over the decades without threatening the use of force. Most examples of successful disarmament have occurred without military threats.

Russia’s proposal for Syria: A win-win solution?

If implemented the Russian proposal for Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international monitors for destruction offers the possibility a win-win solution. Syria is pressured into giving up its chemical weapons, and the international norm against the use of these weapons is strengthened. The Obama administration avoids the prospects of political defeat at home and the risks of renewed military intervention in the Middle East.

France is introducing a resolution at the UN Security Council to implement the Russian proposal and mobilize international action against the chemical attacks. The French resolution demands that Syria disclose its chemical stockpiles and place them under international control. It also condemns the August 21 massacre and calls for International Criminal Court action against those responsible.

The implications of the latest developments are many:

  • Threat-based diplomacy can be effective. There is no doubt that Obama’s threat of military attack, and the worldwide effort to prevent that action, played a key role in catalyzing Russia’s involvement and pressuring Syria to consider the deal.
  • U.S. domestic political opposition to military strikes limited the administration’s options, forced a time-consuming debate that allowed time for diplomatic maneuvering, and increased the President’s receptivity to non-military solutions.
  • The United States can benefit from working with Russia in seeking diplomatic solutions to difficult international security challenges.
  • If the Syrian chemical weapons plan is implemented it could open the door for diplomacy to end the war, with the U.S. and Russia renewing their cooperation in pushing for a ceasefire and a negotiated solution.
  • The Syria deal could provide an opening for diplomatic cooperation with Iran. Tehran has announced its support for the Russian proposal and could be asked to participate in assuring its implementation. This could pave the way for negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Strikes on Syria: Turning Criminals into Victims?

Among the many negative consequences of the proposed American military intervention in Syria is the diversion of attention away from the crimes committed by Syrian military forces toward the actions being planned by the United States. The world’s television screens are filled with images of the debate about an American strike, not the consequences of the chemical massacre committed by the Syrian army. The main story line is the military action planned by Obama – not the crimes committed by Assad.

The bombing of Syria risks turning Assad and his supporters into victims rather than perpetrators. As the missiles strike, media images will show civilians killed by American weapons rather than those who died in the chemical attacks. The focus will be on U.S. policy rather than the continuing crimes of the Assad regime.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Obama and his advisers still have time to turn away from their ill-advised military plan toward a more effective multilateral strategy that would have broad international support. The alternative approach I have proposed would apply pressure against those responsible for the chemical attacks while intensifying diplomatic efforts to end the war. It would focus attention where it belongs, on prohibiting chemical weapons and ending the war, rather than on American military intervention.

There Are Alternatives

Yes, there must be consequences for those who ordered the chemical weapons massacre in Syria, but this is not an argument for military strikes. Robust options are available for mobilizing international pressure against the Assad regime and seeking an end to the killing. The United States should:

Provide the evidence

  • Give a detailed report to the UN Security Council and the world media of the evidence it claims to possess identifying the Syrian political and military leaders responsible for the chemical attacks; clarify the inconsistencies in the information that has been presented to date,
  • Support continued and more thorough investigation by UN inspectors to develop further evidence of precisely what happened and who was responsible for the massacre.

Apply international pressure

  • Seek approval of resolutions at the UN Security Council, the Arab League and other international bodies condemning the chemical massacre as a war crime and a crime against humanity,
  • Urge the UN Security Council to impose targeted sanctions against those who are found to be responsible for the massacre,
  • Urge the Security Council to refer the Syrian chemical attacks to the International Criminal Court with an expedited mandate for gaining further criminal evidence and issuing indictments against those responsible,
  • Apply additional U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime, cancelling all business dealings and barring from U.S. markets any governments or firms that enable or finance Syrian government atrocities,
  • Work with European governments and other countries to urge the imposition of similar sanctions.

Pursue diplomatic options

  • Engage with Russia and Iran to seek their support in a coordinated strategy to take international legal action against those responsible for the chemical massacre and to encourage a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war,
  • Renew and intensify pressure on the Syrian government and rebel forces to participate in the proposed Geneva II peace negotiations, toward the goal of reaching a ceasefire and agreement for dividing power in Syria,
  • Increase humanitarian aid to provide support for the growing number of refugees from Syria.