Azmat Hassan is a career diplomat and former ambassador of Pakistan, where his postings have included Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco, and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University.
The outcome of the recent Geneva talks between the P5+1 and Iran is good news. The international community is rightly concerned at the ambiguity surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s agreement to turn over the enriched uranium fuel from its reactors to Russia represents a significant concession. But more significantly, it is a victory for diplomacy. It staves off, at least temporarily, the hawkish option of preemptive attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities by either Israel or the United States.
The latter course would be disastrous as it almost certainly would unleash more bloodshed and uncertainty in the Middle East — and probably tilt Iran toward joining the nuclear club. Iran feels hemmed in by the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel; by the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; and by nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The Geneva talks open up the possibility of diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran.
The U.S. and Iran have not spoken to each other for 30 years. They have to reengage to serve their mutual interests. Normalization would enable American diplomats on the ground in Tehran to better gauge the dynamics of Iranian politics. Ditto for Iranian diplomats in Washington. If matters proceed well, it might enable Obama to have a direct channel to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Pakistan helped the U.S. and China to reconcile forty years ago, and it would be a possible mediator between Washington and Tehran.
I vividly remember accompanying President Leghari of Pakistan in a meeting with Khamenei, when the former was on a state visit to Tehran in 1994. Khamenei sat on the floor, and so did the Pakistani delegation, on exquisite Persian carpets interspersed with cushions. Far from the West’s caricature of Iranian clergy as a bunch of scowling mullahs in black robes, Khamenei appeared both genial and worldly.
I did not detect any fire and brimstone in his remarks. Engagement almost always softens the rough edges of animosity and misperception among adversaries. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the U.K. said that a real hero is one who turns an enemy into a friend.
Diplomatic engagement between the U.S and Iran is imperative if we desire a more peaceful Middle East. This will be good for all actors. Iran is just too important and powerful to be intimidated or isolated. Nixon’s opening to China showed the enormous benefits of bringing China into the world’s mainstream. The same can happen with Iran. Diplomacy means putting oneself in the shoes of one’s antagonist. It means viewing intractable issues from a different prism. Ultimately, it means searching for accommodation. If the U.S. were to open up and normalize with Iran, it could open the way for a broad-based rapprochement between Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab countries and Iran. It could unlock the gridlock in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could thus be win-win all around — instead of the zero-sum game that the hawks want us to play.
– Azmat Hassan
For another perspective on the responsibilities of the P5+1, read contributor Dwight Bashir’s thoughts: Amid Iran nuclear talks, don’t forget human rights.