DENVER – A senior Russian diplomat, in contrasting North Korea and Iran, once said to me: “The North Koreans are like neighborhood children with matches. The Iranians are who we really need to worry about.”
Whether the talks between the “P5 + 1” (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany) and Iran, which concluded in Istanbul on April 14 and are due to resume in Baghdad on May 23, have any chance of succeeding remains highly uncertain. The smart money is most likely being wagered on failure. But those of little faith need to understand a basic, but sometimes-elusive point about such negotiations: they are conducted for two purposes.
The first purpose is, of course, to persuade the country in question to come around to others’ views. But negotiation must also demonstrate that everything that could be done has in fact been done before further steps – especially the highly risky and fraught decision to take military action – are considered. Military measures require broad international acceptance, and that condition can be met only in a context of good-faith efforts at diplomacy.
Effective diplomacy is not just about substance; it is also about timing and sequencing. Those who support a military solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, without first supporting diplomacy and economic measures of the kind currently being implemented against Iranian exports, miss that point. Few serious political leaders today argue the case for war. Those who do have succeeded only in driving up the price of oil, as markets, fearing the likely effect of military action on the region, respond to Iran’s bellicose reactions.
There has been another avenue to cutting short diplomacy with Iran: Israel, which would lie within range of a nuclear-armed Iranian missile, and therefore is most threatened by that prospect. Being willing to fight to the last Israeli is a familiar pattern for those disinclined to take risks themselves. But to encourage Israel to do what others with far greater means are not prepared to undertake is to expect a great deal of a small country in the Middle East with problems far and wide, most notably among its neighbors.
Israel, after all, has watched the political developments in Egypt not with hope, but rather with growing alarm. The Israelis also see with greater clarity than many in the world the nature of the likely successor regime in Syria (hint: it will probably not be comprised exclusively of Facebook and Twitter users).
While it is true that many Arab states worry night and day about a nuclear Iran, they are singularly unlikely to support military intervention by Israel. After all, this is the Middle East, where, as the old joke goes, the scorpion stings the camel carrying it across the Suez Canal, knowing that they will both drown.
War is a serious means toward serious ends, as Carl von Clausewitz observed almost 200 years ago. Countries that have suffered it firsthand know better than many its painful effects on subsequent generations. It is, after all, the human endeavor most associated with unintended consequences. To advocate military action out of sequence with other efforts, even if those efforts’ odds of succeeding are very long, is to ask a lot not only of the countries that are supposed to support it, but, more importantly, of the men and women who must wage it.
The proper sequencing of steps in dealing with world trouble spots is essential to gaining international support for further action. The air campaign that ultimately succeeded in breaking Slobodan Milošević’s grip on Kosovo (and later his grip on Serbia proper) was made possible by prolonged diplomacy on the part of the United States, the European Union, and Russia.
No one at the time tried to argue that peace was not given a chance, which is why advocating a quick end to diplomacy when it is judged unlikely to achieve anything is often a mistake. Many countries will be unlikely to support a military solution until they have seen genuine efforts at other means of persuasion (and coercion) fail.
Even if no military option is contemplated for the future, negotiations can pay other dividends. On the eve of the start of the six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea, many opinion surveys in South Korea showed a substantial percentage of the public there blaming the US for the North Korean nuclear threat. While the six-party process has fallen well short of ending the threat, it has virtually eliminated efforts to blame the US as the culprit.
Iran’s nuclear aspirations are a problem that, if not resolved, could lead to dangerous escalation, as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US, and Israel review their options. But these options will become much clearer and more sustainable if the diplomatic track is carefully explored first.