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Benjamin Halfpenny

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Diplomacy is More Than a Positive Intention

Posted: 4/02/2012 00:00

Following the EU's move to cancel oil imports from Iran, the support from the international community was overwhelming. In a joint statement, Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel declared that until Iran came to the negotiating table they would be '"united behind strong measures to undermine the regime's ability to fund its nuclear programme"; an Iranian nuke "threatens the peace and security of us all".

Barack Obama, fresh from his moves on Iran's central and Tejarat banks, announced that the sanctions "demonstrate once more the unity of the international community in addressing the serious threat presented by Iran's nuclear program." Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, having joined the EU in its sanctions, reflected on Iran's "globally unacceptable" behaviour. And the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, said that tougher sanctions were needed.

World leaders, then, have continued to characterise Iran as a threat or a menace intent on some kind of destruction. This is a view which probably chimes with more than half of wider public opinion on Iran's quest for uranium enrichment: that Iran must be stopped before unstable geopolitics, regional Shia radicalisation, or cataclysmic disaster - the form of which is unspecified, but the threat of which is clear - occurs.

It might be asserted that the other section of public opinion is more sympathetic to Iran. Most eloquently expressed by Mehdi Hasan back in November, this position holds that Iran's geographical location - "encircled by the United States and its allies" - explains the desire for a nuclear deterrent; that Iran sees how North Korea has insulated itself with nuclear weapons; and ultimately that there is still no categorical evidence that Iran is building a bomb, as confirmed in the IAEA's 2011 report.

For both schools of thought, the new sanctions come at the "hard power" end of diplomacy. It is hoped, as evinced by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last Monday, that the move will encourage the Iranians back to the negotiating table with positive intentions. Diplomacy, when contrasted with the 'Strangelovian' desire for military action, is the buzz word for determined moderation, the priority for politicians and journalists alike.

Yet as far as the international community and journalists seek diplomacy with Iran, there is an extent to which the word is being used as an axiom for "cautious Western efforts" rather than a practical solution for peace. Calls for talks are creating this sense of a moral high ground where in refusing to chat - or refusing to comply with Western demands - Iran is seen as being obstinate. And instead of exploring why positive talks are not happening, commentators are working out the next dreadful steps Iran could take.

For diplomacy with Iran to work in the longer term, we need to change the way Iran perceives diplomatic efforts. With tough rhetoric, double-standards and belligerent action accompanying calls for diplomacy, Ashton's appeal looks less of an invitation and more of an enjoinder. Iran needs to feel that negotiations are predicated on some semblance of equal standing, some chance of mutual agreement. As Foreign Minister Salehi said last week: "Iran is ready to negotiate on the basis of mutual respect."

Successful talks, I contend, will require change in four main areas.

First, as displayed by the rhetoric of leaders above, it is commonly stated or implied that Iran is intent on building a bomb to threaten the security of the world. There is neither incontestable evidence for this nor historical justification for the portrayal of modern Iran as an imperial, bloodthirsty menace. Stop the hostile rhetoric.

Second, no leader or multilateral organisation has publicly debated quite why Iran would want a bomb, or indeed what they would actually do with one (bar endangering the security of the world, obviously). In international discourse it is often assumed that Iran would attack its 'enemies' without the second thought for reason or method. Until this conversation enters the public debate, antagonism will persist.

Third, Iran sees that its number one foe Israel complies less with international nuclear rules than itself, yet remains the beneficiary of US aid and is comparatively sheltered from global criticism. Apart from its aggression towards Iran, Israel already has a nuclear weapon, is not part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), will not disclose the number of its warheads, and will not - like Iran - allow IAEA inspections. So why should Iran comply more if others comply even less?

And fourth, why negotiate when your scientists are being assassinated and the international community raises little more than an eyebrow? Romney may talk of 'terrorism' in the blocking of shipping lanes, but real examples of terrorism are happening in Iran where scientists and citizens are being incinerated in their cars. Is violent coercion and intimidation really the basis for progressive discussion?

We have reached a stage where a flare-up in the Strait of Hormuz is a possibility. States are increasing the pressure for diplomatic exchange, without an apparent willingness to negotiate their position. But, to massage Kevin Rudd's phrase, until the international community treats Iran with the 'globally acceptable' diplomatic respect afforded to Israel, diplomacy has as little traction as belligerence. Diplomatic efforts are not just failing because of Iran; they are also failing because of us.