Diplomatic Blunders Endanger Victory with Iran in Geneva

by Robert E. Hunter

“Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan” — John Kennedy’s pithy phrase also has its opposite. We have seen this since last weekend’s failed effort to reach an accord on nuclear matters between Iran and the so-called “P5+1”, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Did Iran scuttle the talks in Geneva on the future of its nuclear program?  Did the French Foreign Minister? Or was it a gremlin in the system, a mutual recognition that the issues remain in the “too tough to solve right now” category?  It is hard to judge, given the vow of silence imposed by the negotiators on their talks, but most of them have presented their individual version of events in the media.

The prize for being cute goes to the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who said, “It was a completely united position [by the P5+1] that was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions.” No open dishonesty in that sentence. The operative word is “our,” which refers to the outcome of an intense, late-night struggle, not involving the Iranian Foreign Minister, but rather taking place on the non-Iranian side of the bargaining table, almost surely to give France what it was demanding, lest “the West” look disorganized. That Iran rejected a position significantly revised from that ready to be launched before French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Geneva is carefully hidden from view.

Truth, it seems, is not only the first casualty of war, but also of multilateral diplomacy.

All is not lost, many commentators have said, given that the negotiators, albeit at a “lower level,” will get back to work on Nov. 20 — assuming that there is no intervening putsch in Tehran by its hardliners against the Iranian negotiating team.

It is true that the diplomatic “process” now taking place has effectively taken the “military option” against Iran off the table, unless some new external factor puts it back again.  Who remembers, now, that only a few weeks ago the Syrian government’s defiance of the US President’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons almost led America to engage in its third Middle East war since 2001? The Syrian chemical weapons are still there; how to get rid of them has not been solved; but war is off this table, as well, to President Obama’s relief (and, one hopes, that of the rest of the civilized world).

In putting the best face on failure at Geneva, US Secretary of State John Kerry has also stressed unity among the Western representatives, perhaps with his fingers crossed behind his back. He had a choice to make: to allow it to look like the US had drifted onto Iran’s side of the argument — something totally unacceptable, certainly in US politics — or to reinforce allied “solidarity” at the price of fostering incredulity. He was in fact given a Hobson’s choice. Either M. Fabius had blind-sided the United States (and stiffed President Obama) — which France vigorously denies, claiming that it had made its concerns clear weeks ago, as a “matter of principle;” or Mr. Kerry had been let down by his State Department negotiating team. Indeed, in the absence of French perfidy, the US team should never have allowed him to put his prestige (and that of the United States) on the line by rushing to Geneva for a bit of last minute, pro forma deal-cutting (a traditional diplomatic practice to show that the boss is really in charge), followed by a formal accord-signing, without first sounding out all the other parties to be sure that nothing could come unstuck at the last minute. Otherwise, the US negotiators should have given Mr. Kerry a clear message to keep his distance.

There is no third possibility to explain what happened.

Nevertheless, with the diplomatic process now clearly underway, the chances are probably greater for success than failure in the bargaining over the Iranian nuclear program — though in the Middle East, counting chickens prematurely is always dangerous. For the proponents both of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb and of a new conflict in the region, that should be good news.

But that category does not include everyone. Israel is understandably worried about its security and wants any deal drawn so tightly that Iran could not possibly get the bomb. The French have commercial interests with Arab states in the Persian Gulf to be served by their current obduracy. Along with other Sunni states, plus Israel, Saudi Arabia is desperately concerned that the US and Iran could become reconciled, with, perhaps in time, Iran’s becoming a rival for US affiliation (though not affection) as it was before 1979. Indeed, the first true and open US-Iran diplomatic engagement in three decades has already caused a geopolitical earthquake in the region of a magnitude rivaling the social-political earthquake of the so-called Arab Spring.

It is not surprising, therefore, that several American Middle East allies oppose a resolution of the Iranian imbroglio – opposition going far beyond fears that Iran might lead the US down the garden path and still get the bomb. For Israel, notably, an end to the valid perception of a potential nuclear threat from Iran would bring the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the front-burner, an issue on which Israel has almost no supporters outside of the United States.

Yet the intense — indeed strident — efforts by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to squelch US diplomacy with Iran carries with it potential risks for Israel. Until now, there has rarely been daylight between US and Israeli strategic interests in the region: Iran’s stance against both the US “Great Satan” and the Jewish state went a long way to provide the glue. But with the possibility that Iran’s revolutionary era and related anti-Western activities are beginning to run their course, Mr. Netanyahu’s approach is no longer necessarily consonant with all US strategic interests in the region. Will the US protect Israel’s security? Yes, including against the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons. But Israel needs to be chary of undercutting the US desire to explore whether Iran can be drawn back into the international system and, as a potential side benefit, whether the region’s Sunni-Shiite civil war can be damped down if not stopped.

Netanyahu has welcomed France’s scuttling, at least temporarily. But the Israeli Prime Minister is not necessarily acting in Israel’s best long-term interests. At the tactical level, he is not wise to align Israel with some of the US president’s most strident domestic political enemies. At the strategic level, it does not help Israel if America’s capacity to be effective and influential in the Middle East and in the Western Alliance is reduced: the US, after all, is Israel’s only true friend and supporter. This is an asset that shouldn’t be casually eroded.

Such considerations have no doubt contributed to Netanyahu’s increasing isolation from much of the Israeli strategic, intelligence, and military elite, the backbone of Israel’s security since its inception, and which steadfastly opposes any gap — real or just perceived — in US and Israeli strategic orientation.

Provided that Obama sticks to his current course and assuming that Iran’s political leadership does not fall prey to its own domestic opponents of successful negotiations, there is not yet reason for pessimism to prevail.

But what happened in Geneva last week will impose serious costs. Opponents of an agreement between the US and Iran — in the Middle East and in the US — now have extra time to marshal their efforts. France, which for some years has sought to be one of America’s favorite allies, is unlikely to find the welcome mat on the White House doorstep. President Obama is likely to think even less than he does already of the virtues of multilateral diplomacy and the utility of the Atlantic Alliance for advancing US strategic interests beyond Europe. And while Israel will still be able to count on US commitment to its security, strategic alignment with the US on other matters cannot, at least for the time being, be taken for granted.

These are heavy prices to be paid for the pursuit of tactical advantages at Geneva last week.

Photo Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. I too think a deal between P5+1 and Iran can be achieved, unless Rouhani is blocked by hardliners in Tehran.

  2. Clearly the hardline conservative mullahs like Khamenei are making all the decisions and any deal that deals a fatal blow the Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions was doomed to fail anyway

  3. beautifully written opinion from someone fully entitled to one. many thanks. I especially liked Hunter’s insider explanation about how Kerry came to be at the Geneva negotiations and what happened there.

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