THE BLOG
12/12/2013 09:31 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 GMT

The Law of Unintended Consequences: Musings on Congress, Iran, and Mandela

On Tuesday, as world leaders and tens of thousands of South Africans gathered in a giant stadium to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry faced off against his political foes in a much smaller arena: the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Suspicious politicos from both sides of aisle seem hell-bent on scuppering any potential breakthrough in Iran-U.S. relations by approving new sanctions which could violate the spirit (if not the letter) of the nuclear accord reached in Geneva at the end of November. These seemingly unrelated events are actually connected by the hidden thread of the Law of Unintended Consequences; decisionmakers in both countries (and the international community at large) would do well to remember its tenets, and learn from Mandela's example as they negotiate the delicate stages of this burgeoning rapprochement.

Almost as soon as the photo-ops in Geneva were finished, bickering about the terms of the deal commenced. The interim agreement in Geneva was either an important and worthy first step on the road to normalizing relations...or a total capitulation of Western ideals in the face of Iranian duplicity. The charm offensive deployed by Iran's President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif was either a brave opening gambit in the face of hardliner opposition back home...or the deluded ramblings of powerless puppets. That these nuclear negotiations can inspire such diametrically opposed points of view is a testament to how important they are.

In the nearly three weeks since the agreement was reached in one of Geneva's finer hotel conference rooms, more energy has been spent on posturing than on implementation. The agreement has six months in which to flourish or fail, and the world may look very different in six months. The logistics of nuclear inspections takes time, and U.S. Congressmen and Senators could benefit from remembering that. U.S. politicians could also benefit by taking careful note of a long-forgotten fact that virally made the rounds alongside news of Nelson Mandela's death: Madiba was on the U.S.' terrorism watchlist as late as 2008.

This gossipy tidbit was gleefully reported as evidence of the U.S.' myopic and often politically-driven foreign policy agenda, and certainly it was and remains an embarrassing state of affairs. The U.S. embraced the South Africa apartheid government for its strong stance against the specter of Communism, adding Mandela and the African National Congress (which had a vocally Communist element) to the watchlist in the 1980s. The Reagan government calculated that a deal with the devil they knew (apartheid enforcers) was preferable to losing another ally to the Communist sphere of influence. Deplorable? Definitely. The antithesis of stated American values? Undoubtedly. Surprising? Not really.

It wasn't particularly obvious in the mid-1980s that the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, although with the benefit of hindsight, it is now accepted as inevitable. At the time, however, the U.S. government was reacting to the circumstances as they interpreted them, which is what governments always do. It would be preferable, of course, to have a Cabinet stocked with blue-sky thinkers, who advise leaders to go against received wisdom, and design policies based on the world we want, not the world we have. But one does not often rise to the level of presidential adviser by going against the grain. In any event, the Reagan administration evidently did not foresee Mandela's eventual release from prison, nor his metamorphosis from revolutionary firebrand to Prime Minister, Conciliator-in-Chief, and Revered Elder Statesman. If they had, perhaps better angels would have prevailed in what was surely a spirited debate about his addition to the terrorism watchlist.

But such is the Law of Unintended Consequences: we don't know what we don't know, and we can't know how decisions we make today will be interpreted by future generations. We don't have a crystal ball to discern what dogmatic beliefs will be out of vogue in 10 years' time. Instead, governments must make the best decisions they can, based on the information they have right now.

Suspicions regarding Iran's intentions are not unfounded. As the Economist has noted, Iran has a well-earned reputation for double-dealing on nuclear issues, and its long-standing support of terrorism, the Assad regime and Hezbollah cannot (and should not) be explained away with platitudes. Certainly, countries do develop nuclear weapons' programs in secret, as Israel did in the 1960s (as yet unacknowledged by any Israeli government), and as India and Pakistan did in the 1990s. Furthermore, the unpredictability of North Korea's nuclear negotiations has made everyone understandably wary.

So, yes, Iran could be playing the P5+1 for fools. Or...it's the alternative: Rouhani, Zarif, the Iranian people and even the Supreme Leader are all very tired of being on the sidelines of the international community, and engaging in good faith. Here, again, South Africa provides an apt example--years of sanctions and shunning helped bring de Klerk to the negotiating table and the eventual downfall of apartheid. But once South Africa came in from the cold, it would have been pointless to insist on maintaining sanctions out of some fervent fidelity to the status quo. Rather than undermining the Iran negotiations because Rouhani may be cut from the same cloth as Ahmadinejad, U.S. politicians (and their skeptical counterparts in other countries) could give him the benefit of the doubt, because he may be cut from the same cloth as Mandela.

The interim agreement decided upon in Geneva is limited in both scope and duration. It could all fall apart spectacularly, and if it does, there will be no shortage of people waiting in the wings to crow smugly about its demise. But the Law of Unintended Consequences asks our elected representatives to be bravely consider an alternate outcome, and give the agreement a fighting chance. I think we can all guess which option would best honor Mandela's legacy.