- Iran deal breaks three decades of rancor and enmity between Washington and Tehran
- Israeli PM has said deal is a mistake of historic proportions, comparing it to Munich
- Tim Lister asks how Iran will compare to six previous landmark breakthroughs
The agreement reached between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program may be just a starting point, an interim deal to provide the space and mutual confidence for a more comprehensive agreement. But it breaks three decades of rancor and enmity between the United States and Iran, and just may be the first stepping stone toward a rapprochement of historic significance. The challenge now is to build on it. History is littered with great achievements set down on paper that have crumbled to dust -- overtaken by events or a fast-changing international landscape, by deception or because they were inherently flawed.
To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, the agreement reached in Geneva falls into that last category: it is a mistake of historic proportions. He has no faith in the verification mechanisms included in the deal and is convinced Iran is out to hoodwink the world, scoffing at "cosmetic Iranian concessions that can be canceled in weeks."
Some of Netanyahu's allies -- like Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz -- have compared the weekend deal in Geneva to the 20th century's most infamous piece of paper: the agreement reached by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938. Chamberlain returned to Britain with a piece of paper that was -- in his words -- "symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again."
The agreement rubber-stamped Nazi aggression against Czechoslovakia, and encouraged Hitler to believe that Britain would not stand in the way of future conquests. Munich became synonymous with appeasement. Referring to the abandonment of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain told the House of Commons: "However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account."
Winston Churchill told Chamberlain days later: "You were given the choice between dishonor and war. You chose dishonor, but you will have war."
Henry Kissinger has described diplomacy as "the art of restraining power." Munich was the classic example of its failure, and is an historical parallel that resonates in Israel. As Chamberlain declared "peace for our time," Jews in Germany and Austria were already being expelled from their homes and jobs and sent to labor camps. To Netanyahu -- and many other Israelis -- the force of arms is the only language that works against some adversaries, and it had better be used sooner rather than later.
Hitler's rise to power came about because of another international agreement, one that historians universally regard as a disaster, and one that ended one European war only to sow the seeds of the next. The Treaty of Versailles, reached in 1919 after World War I, had 440 articles but one goal -- to punish Germany. It was negotiated by the victors, Britain, France and the United States, and imposed on the vanquished. So drastic were its terms that Germany lost its coalfields and colonies and was forced to pay the allies some 5% of its national income over a 10-year period.
Versailles helped push Germany into a decade of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation. It stands in stark contrast to the Marshall Plan that sought to rebuild Germany and Japan as modern democratic nations after World War II. Above all, Versailles showed that continuing to punish an enemy, even one on its knees, only breeds extremism and a thirst for revenge. Perhaps the legacy of Versailles is somewhere in the subconsciousness of the diplomats trying to show Iranian moderates that relief from sanctions is a prize within their grasp.
The Oslo Accord
Negotiation only begins when adversaries tire of confrontation, when the cost of war and the suffering it brings seem to outweigh any chance of victory, or when outside pressure becomes overwhelming. Sometimes all three factors and more besides come together. So it was that then-South African President F.W. de Klerk reached out to Nelson Mandela. Later, de Klerk said: "If we had not changed in the manner we did, South Africa would be completely isolated... Internally, we would have the equivalent of civil war."
Similar conditions led Israel and the Palestinians to begin the Oslo process, and the British government and Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the IRA -- to begin exploring a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The secret Oslo negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization followed the first Palestinian intifada and the Madrid conference of 1981 -- when the United States invested heavily in bringing Arabs and Israelis together to explore a broad Middle East peace settlement. The Oslo Accord provided a window of opportunity in which to build a permanent peace; according to its terms, that window would last five years. On September 13th 1993 then-U.S. President Bill Clinton watched Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shake hands at the White House and declared: "Today marks a shining moment of hope for the people of the Middle East; indeed, of the entire world."
Rabin himself acknowledged the impulse that had brought about that ceremony. "We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities, so that our children and our children's children will no longer have to experience the painful cost of war, violence, and terror."
But that hope was destroyed by violence. Two years later, at a rally in support of the Oslo Accord, Rabin would be shot dead by a right-wing Orthodox Jew. Militant Palestinians opposed to the deal carried out a series of bombings targeting Israeli civilians; a Jewish settler murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron. Gradually, the "shining moment of hope" evaporated as those who championed diplomacy were outflanked or eliminated. Shimon Peres picked up the torch that fell from Rabin's hand, but was defeated in elections in 1996 -- by Netanyahu, who had campaigned vigorously against Oslo.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland came about because the IRA -- after nearly 30 years of terror attacks aimed at expelling the British presence from the province -- could see no further benefit in violence. The British and Irish Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, worked assiduously and in tandem to build on unilateral ceasefires already declared by Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries. It helped that the United States -- in the shape of masterful mediator George Mitchell -- was handmaiden to the process, concentrating the minds of Nationalist and Unionist leaders. President Clinton also used his formidable powers of persuasion, inviting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to the annual White House reception to mark St. Patrick's Day.
Fifteen years after the agreement was reached, it holds because the alternative is unthinkable to most citizens of Northern Ireland. Both Sinn Fein and the Unionists have a stake in government. Institutionalized discrimination against the Catholic minority -- in education and the workforce -- is consigned to history. There are militants on both sides who are still prepared to use violence and who oppose Good Friday but they are, as of now, on the remote fringes - unlike the opponents of the Oslo Accord. That doesn't mean that Protestants and Catholics mix freely in pubs or visit each others' neighborhoods. In fact the cultural war as expressed by marches and the attachment to historical symbols, is alive and well. No politicians' agreement will rub out generations of hatred.
The same might be said of the former Yugoslavia. The Dayton Agreement in November 1995 (again largely the work of a U.S. mediator, in this case Richard Holbrooke) formally ended the war for Bosnia, a three-way conflict between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. It restrained the power of the Serbs' champion, Slobodan Milosevic, but did not draw the poison of sectarian enmity, which was to explode again in Kosovo three years later. Eventually it was the ouster of Milosevic as President of Serbia -- by popular protest -- that allowed Serbia to begin a long trek toward rejoining the community of nations. In this instance, the carrot was membership of the European Union. But as in Northern Ireland, harmony has not exactly broken out among Bosnia's ethnic groups, despite lavish international aid and support.
Iran, after more than a decade of crippling international sanctions (and much more of U.S. sanctions), now has its chance to break out of isolation. But the skeptics -- including the Sunni Gulf monarchies -- will be looking to the Islamic Republic's behavior on several fronts, not just the nuclear: its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and for the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Iran's regional rivals -- Saudi Arabia especially -- accuse it of fomenting trouble in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon.
The U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks revealed the depth of distrust across the Persian Gulf. According to one cable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia relayed to the Americans in March 2009 what he had just told the then Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki.
"You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters," the Saudi monarch was quoted as telling Mottaki. "Iran's goal is to cause problems," he told John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism adviser. "There is no doubt something unstable about them."
So the Saudis -- like the Israelis and not a few others -- will not be pacified by one interim nuclear deal. They may instead point to the precedent of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, which was meant to freeze that pariah state's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina), put in this way Monday. "I've seen a movie like this before called North Korea and it did not end well...They promised to not go forward on a reactor that's about to come online this year. When you relieved sanctions in North Korea the North Koreans took the money and broke out. That's exactly what I worry about here."
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine this week, Robert Zarate and Daniel Blumenthal recall that "North Korea used a series of quid pro quo agreements with the United States and partner countries to obtain sanctions relief or other sweeteners in return for promises to freeze or roll back elements of its nuclear weapons-making program -- promises that Pyongyang eventually broke."
North Korea ultimately abandoned the Framework and detonated its first nuclear device in 2006. Nor did its behavior in terms of proliferation activities and hostility toward South Korea improve.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been at pains to stress the intrusive verification regime that accompanies this deal.
"It's a question of having the verification and the intrusive inspections and the insights in the program and the commitments that can be held accountable so that you are in fact creating a fail-safe mechanism," Kerry told CNN's State of the Union Sunday.
Robert Zarate, Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, is among those yet to be convinced. In a paper for the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center this year, he argued that U.S. policy-makers essentially ignored intelligence on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs that would have demanded a tougher response. By the time reality dawned, the danger was all the greater.
The same accusation was leveled at Neville Chamberlain in 1938.
But the Obama Administration believes the Geneva deal means it would now take longer for Iran to "break out" as a nuclear-armed state. The "window of diplomacy" that the president has frequently referenced has been cracked open a little wider. And in the words of a famous philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."