The importance of seeing and grasping the opportunities

The annual month-long meeting of the General Assembly’s First Committee, responsible for issues of international peace and security, begins today in New York. Two issues have been on the media’s agenda: disarming Syria of its chemical weapons and the next round of nuclear talks between Iran and the E3+3. Both involve a degree of optimism, perhaps even an excitement around the possibilities, rarely seen in the U.N. corridors in recent years. Perhaps it is because these openings for progress have been so unexpected.

Of course, it’s the kiss of death for an analyst within the security community to be seen as naive or unduly optimistic; far safer to focus on the dark-side, on what could go wrong. No-body criticises an analyst for pointing out risk – that’s their job; but one that appears positive, even when proven correct, is all too often seen as complacent, wishful-thinking or worse. At the EU Consortium on Non-proliferation annual conference in Brussels attended by well over 300 delegates last week, normally hard-bitten pessimistic analysts couldn’t hide the positive atmosphere on the prospects for arms control (despite repeated claims they remained ‘realistic sceptics’).

Occasionally, every so often, circumstances collude, a chink of light peeps through the clouds, and we get to see just how positive things could be, if we were able to clear the obstacles out of the way. It’s not just crises that take us by surprise.

Before we run away with our dreams, let’s not leave the ground quite yet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is touring Europe this week, speaking of the dark forces at work within Iran. His characterisation of Iran last week on BBC Persian as something close to a gulag may have prompted a twitter-storm from the jean-wearing iPad users in Iran, but his mission to discredit Rouhani’s September outreach at the United Nations will reach a sympathetic audience in some quarters.

There are strong parallels between the Israeli fear today with Rouhani and that felt by the Iranian government in November 2008 upon the election of Barack Obama, a U.S. President who could unite the world against Iran in a way his predecessor was incapable of. The government in Tehran, seeing the new American President’s attempts to reach out as lacking in substance, sought to undermine the U.S. message with warnings to their people of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. You may recognise the phrase. And because the world is complex, and there is always evidence to support such claims, it is easy to appeal to people’s fears and to spike the optimism. Obama’s 2009 proposals fell well short of partnership or full recognition and his room for manoeuvre was heavily limited by Congress.

Despite Obama’s Nowruz New Year message in 2009 to the Iranian people and government, and his Administration’s sensitive treatment of the exposure of Natanz that same September, followed by a diplomatic offensive that nearly resulted in the break-through fuel-swap deal, Obama’s charm offensive came to nothing. The possible trust that could have developed was squandered by a lack of trust and an unwillingness to take risks. On both sides.

Rouhani is, by identity, a conservative fully signed up to perpetuating the Islamic Revolution in Iran and protecting the nuclear programme. That is his appeal – because he has at least a chance to bring much of the Iranian elite with him. But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s attempt this weekend to partially distance himself from Rouhani’s cautious but optimistic diplomacy in New York is also a signal that the Iranian government itself is still playing safe with the messaging and attempting to cover all bases. But if we listen to Netanyahu today, and assume the worst in Tehran, we run the danger of squandering opportunities all over again. And whilst the dangers of being naive are certainly real, the impact from missing opportunities for breakthrough are equally damaging.

The optimism in the media around developments in arms control this past few weeks indicate that people are rightly tired of the pessimists. But we also need to exercise caution. Irrational optimism can burn bridges and poison the ground for future initiatives for years afterwards. The four years following Obama’s failed overtures to Iran have been very hard for those in Washington trying to encourage engagement with the Iranians.

There remain many blockages on the way to breakthrough. It’s simply not possible to sweep away the history – trust needs patience and assurance. There remain deeply entrenched interests that oppose reconciliation, particularly in Congress, in the Knesset, in the Majlis and in the office of the Supreme Leader. The ability for bureaucracies in the United States and Europe to rapidly reverse the sanctions, even when there would be the will to do so, is limited.

Clearing Syria of chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war where there are interests on both sides and in neighbouring states to spoil the process is a severe challenge. It doesn’t help that there remain differences between the Russians and Americans on the issue, but the recent agreement between NATO and Russia to cooperate in the execution of the plan must surely be a positive sign.

Israeli President Peres’ announcement last week that his government would seriously consider ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention indicates that the prize could be bigger than within Syria itself. If Israel were to join, would Egypt be able to stay out and incur the disapproval of the international community? It could come to see the leverage over Israel’s nuclear weapons possession it feels it has by staying out of the convention as illusionary, and a dangerous liability. We may yet see a diplomatic domino effect – a reverse proliferation cascade.

Does this all bode well for the prospects of a Conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East before the next Preparatory Committee next April 2014? It would be foolish and naive in the extreme to expect a conference in December. But its chances of happening are much better than they were a month ago. And for that we can be grateful. And optimistic.

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