Diplomacy and international security are increasingly panned as an unsuitable pairing, with electorates in the world being over informed that their military spending is the only, or the best way to guarantee national security – to paraphrase expert commentator Donald J Trump, you have to ‘bomb, bomb, bomb.’ Recently, however, the work of slow, steady and cool-headed diplomacy has yielded several important leaps forward in keeping our world safer, whilst refraining from the language of conflict in the meantime.
2015 was a year in which the Obama administration moved very swiftly, decisively and successfully on working with two arcane pariahs of US foreign policy – re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba and coming to a nuclear deal with Iran. In international security terms, it is the second of these breakthroughs that is most key as the Middle East continues to be volatile, so the partial resolution of issues between Iran and the US will surely be of relief to both parties, as well as the assurance to the wider global community that the potential for a ‘rogue state’ to gain nuclear weapons capacity has been successfully neutered.
This diplomatic resolution, spearheaded by Secretary Kerry, represents a marked step change by the US from the early 2000s, where hawkish rhetoric saw then President Bush brand the Islamic Republic of Iran as a key player in his perceived ‘Axis of Evil’. Refreshingly, despite the partisan angst of Republicans in Congress, Obama has moved away from the narrowly held and obstructive biases of his predecessor, and made genuine progress in moving forward on Iran. The fruits of the deal have been in evidence this week, as some wide ranging sanctions against the Iranian economy by the US were lifted, to much jubilation on the streets of Tehran. In exchange, inspectors from the IAEA have had unprecedented access to the nuclear programme, witnessed the concrete filling of the only source of weapons grade plutonium, and seen the dismantling of 2 in 3 Iranian centrifuges. It seems hard to believe that it the first agreement was only signed last July, for two nations who have barely been on speaking terms for over 30 years.
Of course questions remain over questions of terrorist activity and human rights abuses. The concerns of the West has not changed in this regard – the tactics, however, are facing an overhaul, after decades of ineffectiveness. The willingness to change tactics, to try something new, is regularly missing from the international arena, and, in this case, appears to be working. This White House and State Department is set upon a course working with nations previously ostracised, for mutual progress and to further the protection of citizens in countries like Iran and Cuba. Furthermore, some sanctions do remain in place in Iran, targeting specific issues unrelated to the nuclear programme. Thus, far from being weak or soft on regimes such as that of Tehran, the Obama administration is channeling the approach to international affairs espoused by Theodore Roosevelt, namely: ‘speak softly, and carry a big stick.’ With the expanding use of economic sanctions over military intervention, it is not the case that the stick has been dropped, but rather it has been adapted for new circumstances.
This politically savvy deal has already opened up future potential for expanding relations, not least because it has given President Hassan Rouhani political breathing space. This side benefit of the nuclear deal is also already producing results for the United States, demonstrated by the fact that this week too they were able to secure the release of ten sailors who strayed into the Persian Gulf within 18 hours, with previous gridlock demonstrated by the concurrent release of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian after 18 months. Gestures such as this could become increasingly common, as the Obama administration, and the relatively progressive Rouhani administration – which goes to the polls in February – feel their way along a new path for US-Iranian relations: one which, thanks to the commitment of both parties, will ensure stability between them merely a decade after it seemed all was lost. Diplomacy, in that it pertains to keeping the international society secure and functioning in the 21st century, remains far from impotent.
By Josh Kemp, LSE