Secretary Kerry’s patient diplomacy continues to win little victories for the Obama Administration. Though he lacks the tough veneer of his predecessor, Kerry is proving to be an adept and successful diplomat.
The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) claims Iran is ahead of schedule in following the agreement reached last year and took affect on January 20th. The dilution of enriched uranium means that Iran probably does not have enough to make even one nuclear weapon, defusing what had been a tense situation. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says its in the interest of Iran to assure the world that Iran does not want to have nuclear weapons. If the process stays on track sanctions will be lifted and Iran will move towards fully rejoining the international community.
This is a success for the Obama Administration. The problem of Iran’s nuclear program has been an issue for over a decade, with the potential of doing immense harm to the region and the world economy. An attack on Iran by the US or Israel could lead to disastrous consequences. The Pentagon was not happy about how it war gamed out, and there was fear Israel might go it alone.
Yet that was then – when Iran was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and the US war in Iraq created intense emotions and anti-Americanism. Now anti-Americanism has waned and the emotion of the last decade has turned into realization that the Iranian economy is the real problem. There is no benefit for Iran in maintaining a hard line, and the last election and recent demonstrations show the Guardian Council (the body of clerics that have the most power in Iran) that the public is unhappy. They need to put the nuclear issue behind them and focus on the economy.
There could still be problems and missteps along the way, but for the first time in a long time concern over Iran’s nuclear program is fading. Patient diplomacy by Obama and Secretary Kerry is paying off.
The other place diplomacy seems to be working is in Ukraine – though this is still a very tense and uncertain situation. Both have agreed in principle to eschew violence. Ukraine will give full amnesty to all protesters except those who have committed capital offenses, while Russia agrees not to invade or use violence. More details aren’t yet known, but while it is meant to de-escalate rather than solve the problem, it’s an important step in the right direction.
Those who say Putin wants to recreate a resurgent Russia are overstating the case. Putin was humiliated by the defeat of Yanukovych earlier this year and it completely unsettled his effort to bring Ukraine closer to Russia. Putin genuinely believes the new government is illegal, radical and illegitimate. If an anti-American protest overthrew a pro-American government in Mexico, we might feel the same way.
No doubt Putin wants to find a way to allow eastern Ukraine to, if not become part of Russia, at least have more autonomy from Kiev to pursue closer relations with Russia. That isn’t necessarily a bad idea; in a divided country, sometimes de-centralized power works best. But Putin is not stupid. He knows that in an era of globalization Russia cannot be isolated from the West – that kind of isolation is what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. His challenge is to find a way out of this that both maintains Russia’s connections to the West (particularly the EU) and prevents an unacceptable outcome in Ukraine.
Today’s de-escalation agreement could allow a transition to talks on constitutional reform in Ukraine to keep the country unified, but allow autonomy on some economic fronts. That may seem like a victory for Russia – and in the short term it would be. But ultimately if the western part of Ukraine develops faster thanks to their EU ties, provinces in the east would have the power to look west. They won’t be tied to Russia.
The US and EU has to use their clout to get Kiev to recognize that they won’t achieve a perfect outcome – Russian power and influence is real; compromise is necessary. They then have to work out an arrangement with Russia that avoids any military action, and will allow for a peaceful resolution of the tumult in the east. Even if the short term result allows the east to drift closer to Russia, as long as Ukraine is one country and the regions in the east remain autonomous from Russia, it’s an acceptable result.
Those who say Putin and Russia are “winning” and the US has lost its foreign policy edge are in the land of the absurd. Not that long ago Russia controlled not only all of Ukraine, but the 15 Soviet Republics and a bunch of east European states. That day is long gone. Russia’s position vis-a-vis the US is severely weakened, and the best Russia can hope for is a little more regional influence.
For those who like to think about power and conflict, messy diplomacy may seem dissatisfying. Better to bomb the Iranians to be sure, or risk war to stop Putin from Russian expansion! But in reality both Russia and Iran have very strong motives to make sure they are connected to the global economy. In the 21st Century, international isolation is defeat. That’s why patient diplomacy can work.