A Strange Way to Build Trust

by Peter Jenkins

Divining the Obama administration’s foreign policy intentions can be intellectually challenging.

At the beginning of February the US Vice President appeared to be offering Iran an opportunity to enter into bilateral talks on the nuclear dispute.

Three weeks ago the US was encouraging its European allies to review their opening position for the upcoming Almaty talks and be open to demanding a bit less of Iran while offering a little more.

Two weeks ago the Secretary of State was hailing the outcome of the Almaty meeting as useful and expressing hope that serious engagement could lead to a comprehensive agreement.

Yet last week in New York, addressing a UN Security Council committee, Ambassador Susan Rice, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, was speaking of Iran as though nothing had changed since the end of January.

There are many clever people working for the Obama administration. So I suppose we must assume that this apparent incoherence is in fact part of a highly sophisticated stratagem, which will deliver what most — though not all — of us want: peace in our time.

Any, though, who are less inclined to think more of US officials than former British diplomats do, should be forgiven for feeling perplexed — perhaps even a little worried — by Ambassador Rice’s remarks.

Let me try to illustrate that by reviewing a few of her points from the position of a Non-Aligned (NAM) member of the UN. Of course, a former British diplomat cannot hope to imagine the thoughts of NAM counterparts with pin-point accuracy. But I have rubbed shoulders with NAM diplomats for a sufficient number of years, and listened to enough of their intergovernmental interventions, to have a rough idea of what impression Ambassador Rice will have made.

“The Iranian nuclear issue remains one of the gravest threats to international security” she intoned. Really? I, as a NAM diplomat, am not sure Iran has ever violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and am certain Iran has not violated that treaty’s most important provisions. Surely North Korea, which has just conducted its third nuclear test, is a greater threat? And what about Israel, which possesses hundreds of dangerous weapons of mass destruction, as well as sophisticated long-range delivery systems? What about India and Pakistan, which came close to nuclear blows in 2002? What about Israel’s refusal to withdraw from territories it has occupied for over 45 years, a standing affront to Arab self-respect? What about the potential consequences of Western-sponsored civil war in Syria, civil unrest in Iraq, and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

“We meet at a time of growing risks.” Is that so? Surely the latest International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report suggests that Iran is being careful to deny Israel’s Prime Minister a pretext to draw the US into a war of aggression?

“[Iran is] obstruct[ing] the IAEA’s investigation into the program’s possible military dimension by refusing to grant access to the Parchin site.” Well, yes. But surely the question of access to Parchin is legally more open to dispute than this implies? And hasn’t the US intelligence community concluded that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program ten years ago? Don’t the IAEA’s suspicions relate to experiments that may have taken place more than ten years ago and that would have involved only a few grams of nuclear material? Why all the fuss?

“More alarming still…Iran is now….installing hundreds of second-generation centrifuges”. Why is this so alarming? Surely Iran has declared this installation to the IAEA, will submit the machines’ operations to frequent IAEA inspection and intends to use them to produce low-enriched uranium for which Iran will account? Developing centrifuge technology under IAEA safeguards is not a treaty violation.

“These actions are unnecessary and thus provocative.” Since when have states been entitled to dictate what is necessary to one another? Some states certainly don’t see these actions as provocative.

“[Iran’s missile launches] allow Iran to develop a technology that [could] constitute an intolerable threat to peace and security.” Iran has no treaty obligation to refrain from developing missile technology. Many other states have done so. And, didn’t I (NAM diplomat) read recently on the US Congressional Research Service that Iran is unlikely to have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by 2015?

“Working together, we can continue to clarify for Iran the consequences of its actions and show Iran the benefits of choosing cooperation over provocation.” My, that sounds patronising, even a little threatening! Will it encourage Iranians to believe that the latest US offer of engagement is sincere?

So what, US readers may feel. The US can say what it likes; it’s a Great Power. Yes, but a power that has the misfortune to be great in an age when greatness confers responsibility for nurturing a law-based international system.

It doesn’t do much good to that system for US ambassadors to sound unreasonable, alarmist, bereft of a sense of proportion and perhaps a little inclined to double standards. Good leaders lead from the middle, not one of the extremities.

And could it be the case that the US is a Great Power that needs a diplomatic solution to an intractable dispute? Neither the Pentagon nor the US public wants another war at this stage. Sanctions have been hurting innocent Iranians but benefitting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and conservative elite, who feel confident of their ability to contain popular discontent.

When one is running out of options, negotiating theorists suggest that building trust in one’s good faith is a better tactic than dishing out hyperbole and half-truths.

Photo Credit: US Embassy New Delhi/Flickr 

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.


One Comment

  1. The only outcome that Washington is willing to “negotiate” is for regime change in Tehran. Unless a government that agrees to all Washington’s demands now and in the future comes into being, Washington will not stop.

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