The ongoing saga of the “Iran nuclear deal” is difficult to follow for the casual news watcher. It never seems to end. Israelis, Saudis, and US Republicans oppose it without explaining which terms they are against, or what they would like to propose instead. The opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba is also hotly debated. But these are positive developments in two ways. First, in the true spirit of a contract or treaty, the Iran nuclear deal offers something positive for both sides. Second and more broadly, this recent trend indicates an opening of communications between geopolitical enemies. Obama’s belief in “talking to the enemy” has been one of the most controversial elements of his presidency. With a perspective outside of political bias, I agree that it is the right course. Communication is healthy for international relations just as it is for personal relations. This has already been proven by Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan. At the very least, communication humanizes the enemy. The US and the West should continue the policy of talking openly to its adversaries – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and more.
The Iran Nuclear Deal in a Nutshell
Iran has a large nationwide program of uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear power plants or (at much higher concentrations) nuclear weapons. Obviously, nobody would like to see Iran develop an arsenal of nuclear bombs. Thus, the primary interest in the West is to keep Iran free of weapons-grade uranium.
To put pressure on the Iranian government – for nuclear activities and other reasons – the US has “boycotted” Iran with trade sanctions since the revolution of 1979. The UN and EU followed with major sanctions in the 21st century. Other nations have imposed minor sanctions as well. The sanctions have had their primary intended effect of making it difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. However, they have also had a major impact on Iran’s overall economy, including high inflation and a current unemployment rate of well above 20%. After four decades, these actions directed against the Iranian government have made life very difficult for ordinary people throughout the entire country. This is bad not only for Iran, but for perpetuating Iran’s negative perception of the outside world.
For decades, the US and Iran’s mutual strategy was to be strong-headed and hope to win a battle of wills. The US hoped that sanctions would eventually cripple Iran to capitulation; lifting sanctions was not an option. Iran felt that it had no choice but to arm itself into a stronger position; nuclear enrichment was non-negotiable.
Diplomatic overtures began in 2003. Iran offered to negotiate a middle ground. The US refused, after which Iran vastly increased its nuclear enrichment program. A decade later, after UN and EU sanctions had strained Iran even further, a tentative agreement was reached between Iran and a multinational coalition representing the US, UN, and EU. The gist of the agreement was very simple. In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would limit its uranium enrichment to peaceful purposes, and open its nuclear energy program to international monitoring. The 2013 agreement gave Iran and its negotiators time to work out a “framework,” and then the details of execution. A framework for such a deal was reached last week, in April, 2015.
The agreements of 2013 and 2015 are historic and significant. This is the first time that Iran has offered any sort of concessions on its nuclear program. The agreement-in-progress includes important provisions allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iran’s uranium industry closely. Easing of sanctions would make life better for average Iranians. It would also start to open the Iranian market to many importers and exporters around the world. Until Iran proves its commitment to the deal, the most important sanctions (those related to uranium and military imports / exports) would remain in place. In short, there would be clear benefits for the global economy and safety. This is an important step forward.
As the deadline for the framework approached, the “nuclear deal” became hotly controversial. Iran’s greatest regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the idea of negotiating with Iran. They are not part of the current talks. In the US, the Republican Party follows Israel’s lead. Interestingly, opponents of the talks are very vague about exactly what they oppose. Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the deal would only favor Iran, “without receiving anything tangible in return.” He does not acknowledge the value of Iran’s changing stance, from defiance to compromise. US Republicans complain vaguely that the deal is not tough enough, that it should insist on more enrichment curtailment while offering less sanction relief. Essentially, what they are arguing for is a repudiation of negotiations altogether; they believe in principle that the US should continue opposing Iran with brute force instead of diplomacy. I have not heard Republicans propose specific alternatives to any of the deal’s terms. Keep in mind that congressional opponents are not the same people who are involved in talks. The negotiators have had years to get to know specific Iranians, their attitudes, needs, and points of flexibility. Third parties are expressing opposition for opposition’s sake. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s stance is apparently, “If Iran is for it, we’re against it,” while Republicans feel, “If Obama is behind this, we won’t allow it.” Some Republicans raise a legitimate point about which branch of government should be involved in the negotiations. That’s for Congress and the White House to wrestle over.
The relationship between the US and the Castros has always been rocky. After Fidel Castro’s first few aggressive years in office, the US imposed a particularly strong embargo against Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties. It can be said that this only made matters worse. Shut off from the US, Cuba turned to the USSR for oil, money, and defense, setting the stage for the particularly bad crises of the 1960s. Even after the USSR collapsed and Cuba went into depression, neither nation made a move to mend fences. Talks have only resumed under Raul Castro’s administration. A trickle of trade is now being allowed, and there is talk of reopening the embassies. An open channel of communication could even lead to an easing of the embargo in exchange for Castro concessions. Again, there could be something good in it for both sides. Nevertheless, of course there is some opposition to these gestures of peace too.
Aside from some matters of asylum, political prisoners, and allying with other dictators, the Castros have not actually posed a threat to the US since at least 1980. They have just been corrupt dictators in their own nation. Most of the pressure to shut them out comes from two sources: Cuban-Americans who have family left behind on the island, and those who once again misunderstand the purpose of communication.
To communicate does not mean to condone. Yes, Fidel Castro wrongfully took his country by force, seized US assets, and harbored Soviet nuclear weapons. By all accounts, the Castros and their government never should have been in power. But let’s face it, they are awfully entrenched there. What are we going to do about it? Ignoring them has not proven very effective at accomplishing anything. The US embargo, like the sanctions against Iran, has a strong grip on Cuba. It is obviously not squeezing the Castros out of power, and is hurting ordinary Cubans more than the government. The UN recommends lifting it. The embargo’s greatest value now is as a bargaining chip. In this century, the US’s main goal is to see a Cuban transition to democracy, at least after the Castros’ death. Maybe the best way to get Raul to listen to what the US has to say is for the US to listen to what he has to say. It sounds like he could be willing to negotiate some democratic reforms in exchange for some economic relief.
If a man were having serious problems with his boss, a neighbor, or his wife, most people would give the same advice: Talk to her! Whether it may be at the dining room table or in pre-trial litigation, at some point they need to figure out how to end the conflict without hurting each other. That’s still true if the neighbors-at-odds are governments – even bad governments.
The alternatives to communication are recalcitrance, failure to understand each other, demonization, retribution, and violence. Negotiation can be difficult, because it requires compromise. But the very act of negotiation, even the willingness to negotiate, can facilitate a mutually agreeable position. And communication does not necessarily have to mean negotiation or validation. Formal discussions force each side to identify specific points of contention, rather than reacting emotionally to each other.
Iran is willing to cap enrichment and open its nuclear industry to inspection. That’s worth an easing of sanctions. The Castros have not threatened the US in decades, and they are willing to normalize relations. That’s worth meeting them in the middle. I think we’d all prefer to have international seats at the table when discussing a post-Castro Cuba.