The Diplomacy Option

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.