When Diplomacy With Iran Was Not Only Legal, But Painless

Iranian warships.

Iranian warships.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to pass — with only six nays — the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011. At the Hill’s Congress Blog, Jamir Abdi explains that (as you may have heard) it contains “a provision—inserted without debate in committee after garnering the majority of its cosponsors—that would outlaw contact between U.S. government employees and certain Iranian officials.”

Abdi reveals how dire the consequences of such a policy can be.

This would not just tie the hands of our diplomats, it would prevent U.S. troops in the field—particularly members of the U.S. Navy operating in the tense Persian Gulf—from making military to military contacts with their Iranian counterparts. … If an Iranian vessel were to approach aggressively a U.S. vessel – as happens all too often – our sailors would be legally barred from making contact with the offending ship. Our sailors would have to send a request up the chain of command to the President, who would have to submit a waiver to Congress. They would then need to wait 15 days for the waiver to take effect before they would have permission to communicate with the Iranian vessel. These sailors barely have fifteen minutes to defuse these situations, let alone fifteen days.

In an “Iran Nuclear Brief” for the Arms Control Association titled Diplomatic Engagement: The Path to Avoiding War and Resolving the Nuclear Crisis, Greg Thielmann and Benjamin Seel expand on this.

The United States needs to relearn the lessons from its own harrowing experiences in the Cold War when miscommunications and misunderstandings nearly led to nuclear catastrophe. Establishing emergency lines of military and diplomatic communication can help prevent minor incidents from quickly escalating into major crises.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, as especially close calls at sea, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA). Thielmann and Seel write that INCSEA

… clearly defined unacceptable and threatening behavior, such as aiming weapons and spotlights at opposing ships. … “buzzing” by aircraft of the decks of opposing ships. … Captains were required to give three to five days’ notice before performing exercises. … the agreement strengthened lines of communication between governments and between ships.

An agreement such as INCSEA would come in handy for the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, a time existed when we actually negotiated with Iran. Not only that, but Iran was a willing participant. Thielmann and Seel describe

… an intensive negotiation between U.S. and Iranian diplomats ending in a successful outcome—at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in December 2001. The objective of that conference was to establish a plan for a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. … Ambassador James F. Dobbins, the lead U.S. negotiator at the conference, characterized working with the Iranians as “…surprising only in how easy and how successful it was.”

[For example, the] biggest obstacle the conference faced, according to Dobbins, was reaching agreement between the various Afghan factions on how to apportion the ministries of the provisional government. The Northern Alliance’s demand for control of 18 of 24 ministries nearly brought the conference to its knees in the final hours. After considerable negotiating by the UN, the U.S., and other delegations, it was Iranian representative Javad Zarif’s last-minute conversation with the Northern Alliance that convinced it to accept a smaller share of ministers and allowed the conference to reach a mutually agreeable solution. Shortly thereafter, at the Tokyo donors conference, Iran agreed to contribute $500 million in assistance for Afghanistan—an amount similar to the sum committed by the United States. By 2007, Dobbins said, Iran had “largely delivered on that assistance.”

The tragedy is that the Obama administration has shown, as surely as the neocons during their reign, that it’s not interested in diplomacy.