Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: The Talking Cure

Nov 24, 2008 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

The Talking Cure

US President-elect Barack Obama is going to change US policy toward Iran and end the Bush Administration approach of refusing to directly engage Teheran diplomatically, right?

Actually, things are not nearly so cut and dried as this conventional wisdom holds. Of course, as was widely noted at the time, the Bush Administration sent Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to attend a European-led meeting with the chief Iranian negotiator in July. But this is not what I mean.

Believe it or not, before the Burns meeting, there were not less than 27 meetings by American officials of ambassadorial rank or higher with Iranian government representatives over the course of the Bush Administration. Former senior AIPAC analyst and consummate Washington insider Steve Rosen has compiled a list of all 28 meetings on his new blog at the Middle East Forum, available at

Why is this important? Like all sensible observers, I hope that the Obama Adminstration will find a way to make the diplomatic progress on Iran’s illegal nuclear program that eluded the international community during the Bush Administration. But we must not be naïve about what this will require.

Too many people imagine diplomacy is essentially like a meeting between two individuals “to talk through” their differences. You sit down, you explain your different perspectives and either achieve reconciliation, or at least identify common interests, and then create an agreement that jointly serves them. But governments of states are not individuals – they have to deal with political imperatives and represent diverse interest groups; they experience genuinely conflicting values and interests; and the issues two states have to consider in any relationship are usually vastly more complex than a relationship between two individuals. Moreover, states cannot rely on courts or other higher authorities to enforce an agreement made, as individuals usually can.

International diplomacy is all about creating positive and negative incentives and communicating them, but face-to-face meetings are only one element of this, albeit the most dramatic and visible one.

I am not saying the Obama Administration cannot build an alternative approach to stopping Iran’s nuclear program that will work better than the Bush Administration’s. I am saying that if they do so, it will be because they have successfully altered the calculations of Iran’s leaders by changing the positive and negative incentives they face, not because they agreed to direct US-Iran meetings, something that was never actually missing from the equation.

The 2003 Deal Myth

Steve Rosen, whom I mention above, also had an excellent recent article about another common myth that has been circulating about US-Iran relations – that Iran offered the US a comprehensive deal in 2003, via the Swiss Embassy, that would have addressed both the nuclear issue and terrorism, but this was “arrogantly dismissed” by Bush Administration “neo-conservatives”. Rosen shows that it was not “neo-conservatives” but pro-engagement State Department officials, including Richard Armitage, who dismissed the proposal because it was not an Iranian offer, but an initiative without clear Iranian endorsement written by a Swiss diplomat. For Rosen’s complete argument, see

Kilcullen’s Advice to Obama

Former Australian army officer David Kilcullen has made quite a name for himself as a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency expert. He served as one of American General David Petraeus’ key advisers as the successful surge strategy in Iraq was formulated, and has advised the American, British and Australian governments on counter-terrorism. He just had an interview published in the New Yorker (which you can read in full at in which he advises President-elect Obama about how to deal with the increasingly fraught issue of Afghanistan. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Q: You spoke of Iraq’s effect in draining our energy and focus away from Afghanistan. President-elect Obama has made it clear that he plans to alter the balance significantly. But, as you say, he doesn’t have much time. If you had his ear, what would be your basic advice?

Kilcullen: Well, I don’t have his ear, and I don’t envy the pressure he must be under. But… First, the draw-down in Iraq needs to be conditions-based and needs to recognise how fragile our gains there have been, and our moral obligation to Iraqis who have trusted us. As I said, we don’t want to un-bog ourselves from Iraq only to get bogged in Afghanistan while Iraq turns bad again. Second, our priorities in Afghanistan should be security, governance, and dealing with the Pakistan safe haven – and we may not necessarily need that many more combat troops to do so. Third, the Afghan elections of September 2009 are a key milestone – we can’t just muddle through, and the key problem is political: delivering effective and legitimate governance that meets Afghans’ needs. And finally, most importantly, this is a wartime transition and we can’t afford the normal nine-month hiatus while we put the new administration in place – the war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the next fighting season, i.e. by the time of the September elections.

The situation in Afghanistan is dire. But the war is winnable. We need to focus our attention on the problem, and think before acting. But we need to think fast, and our actions need to involve a major change of direction, focusing on securing the population rather than chasing the enemy, and delivering effective legitimate governance to the people, bottom-up, at the local level. Do that, do it fast, and we stand an excellent chance of turning things around.



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