By Patrick LAWRENCE
A return to diplomacy: Let us hold this thought up to the light. Among all the promises President Joe Biden is going to break over the next four years, this will prove the most fraudulent and, in the larger scheme of things, the most consequential of his breaches.
As of last week, it is the crisis over the agreement governing Iran’s nuclear programs that stands to demonstrate the truth of this judgment. On Sunday Tehran appeared to put the Biden administration on notice that it has two weeks to get serious about reentering diplomatic negotiations, after which time the shutter will come down on the window of opportunity. As I have previously made clear in this space, I see no evidence that Biden’s national-security people will prove either serious or wise as they address this critical question.
In truth, there is very little American diplomacy to return to. The late and estimable Boutros Boutros–Ghali explained this memorably in Unvanquished, the memoir he published in 1999, after the U.S. forced him out as the UN’s secretary-general because he was not sufficiently obsequious. “Only the weak rely on diplomacy,” the celebrated Egyptian wrote. “The United States sees little need of it, for power is enough.”
How very on the mark. “The Roman Empire had no need of diplomacy,” the learned Boutros–Ghali elaborated. “Nor does the United States: Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.”
This is the tradition the Biden administration will return to. Let us call it the diplomacy of no diplomacy.
There is much talk now of demilitarizing American foreign policy, and it is a fine thing that it is at last permissible to raise the topic in polite conversation. “Time and time again, we’ve seen how over-reliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand,” William Burns, a career diplomat and now named CIA director, said in an interview last spring with The Foreign Service Journal. “Time and time again, we’ve fallen into the trap of overusing — or prematurely using — force. That tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought.”
The right thoughts, surely. But I urge those assuming Burns’ remarks have anything to do with the new administration’s direction to temper their expectations. It is policy to say such things; it is not how the Biden administration intends to conduct policy.
Iran as Early Indicator
The Iran question was fated to stand as an early indicator of President Biden’s foreign policy principles (if this is my word). Tehran now seems determined, altogether rightfully, to force the issue. Good, I say. The sooner we understand the what’s-what of this administration the better.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear agreement is formally known, lifted U.S. and international sanctions in return for Iran’s reduction of uranium enrichment under enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring. The IAEA repeatedly reported that Iran was sticking to its part of the deal. Given that President Donald Trump withdrew from the six-nation accord in 2018, Biden’s professed intent during his presidential campaign was to restore the U.S. as a signatory to it.
But it was clear from the outset that Biden’s promise was unlikely to prove policy, chiefly because the Israelis made it plain once Biden won the White House that they would accept no such outcome.
We now watch as Biden and his foreign policy people effectively allow Israel to dictate the conditions under which Biden can fulfill his campaign promise.
The Israeli leadership is at this point divided — but only tactically. Aviv Kohavi, the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief of staff, said 10 days ago that Washington ought to adopt the Trump policy and repudiate the accord altogether. But Yossi Cohen, head of Mossad and a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is now making final plans to consult in Washington at the end of the month with Biden, CIA Director Burns, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
Cohen, who knows full well Biden is about to give Tel Aviv veto power over his Iran policy, will prevail. We are now in for a textbook case of the diplomacy of no diplomacy.
Tehran asks the Biden administration to lift the punishing sanctions Trump imposed after he pulled the U.S. out of the accord as its only condition prior to reopen talks. A goodwill gesture of this kind is hardly an extravagant request under the circumstances. But Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have made it abundantly clear that the U.S. will take this step only after Iran returns to full compliance with the agreement’s limitations.
Translation: Act on our demands before we open negotiations on our demands. The U.S. position, in other words, is intended as an offer Iran cannot possibly accept.
Blinken, it is to be noted, has begun to change his story since his Senate confirmation hearings the day before Biden’s inauguration. “The time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one weapon,” he advised the assembled senators, “has gone from beyond a year, as it was under the JCPOA, to about three or four months, based at least on public reporting.” In an interview with NBC News on Jan. 31, he said this timeframe could shrink to “a matter of weeks” if Iran continues low-grade enrichment at its current pace.
In my surmise, Blinken is sharpening his rhetoric in anticipation of the Yossi Cohen talks, now a matter of a week or two away. The heightened sense of alarm will then justify accepting what are certain to be the very stringent demands Israel imposes on the Biden administration. Lost in all that Blinken now articulates, of course, is Iran’s longstanding declaration, verified by a National Intelligence Estimate during the Bush II years, that it has no program or plans to develop nuclear weapons.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and for my money one of the two ablest diplomats now active (the other is Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister), is nothing if not inventive. Let us act simultaneously, he proposed last week: Iran will return to compliance while the U.S. lifts sanctions.
The European Union, in the person of Josep Borrell, its de facto foreign minister, can “choreograph the actions,” Al Jazeera quoted Zarif as saying. “There can be a mechanism to basically either synchronize it or coordinate what can be done.”
What’s not to like? You may wonder. You will have to ask Biden’s foreign policy people, because they declined the offer.
“If Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same,” the State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price, responded the next day, “and then we would use that as a platform to build a longer and a stronger agreement that also addresses other areas of concern.”
What a third-rate hack. This is nothing more than the arrogant, impudent boilerplate of dullards with too much power: Blinken has been using these same phrases verbatim for months. It is another way of saying the U.S. has no intention of altering its position even when presented with a mutually satisfactory way through a diplomatic impasse.
There is nothing new in this. It is North Korea redux, to take one of numerous cases: Washington has engaged in the diplomacy of no diplomacy with Pyongyang for much of the past seven decades, offering it one “deal” after another intended to precipitate the North’s rejection.
Indeed, in his confirmation hearings before the Senate a few weeks ago, Blinken made it plain this is precisely how he proposes to address the North Korea question: Use sanctions and the threat of force to confront the North with offers they cannot accept, then cast them as intractable.
This nonsense will not endure indefinitely as our new century unfolds.
In the Iran case, the clock now ticks. In apparent response to Washington’s rejection of Zarif’s proposal, on Sunday Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described Tehran’s final position thus:
“If they want Iran to return to its commitments … America must completely lift sanctions, and not just in words or on paper. They must be lifted in action, and then we will verify and see if they have been properly lifted, and then return.”
The Agence France–Presse report, quoting this televised speech, implied that Iran, in observance of a law passed in the majlis last December, will expel all IAEA nuclear inspectors on Feb. 21 if the U.S. does not meet its demands.
The diplomacy of no diplomacy is not diplomacy. It is a pantomime acted out by frivolous poseurs, the intent of which is to veil America’s reliance on military power.
Here, posthumously and respectfully, I must correct Boutros-Ghali. Powerful nations are often weak — history is replete with examples. This is America’s condition after seven complacent decades: We are too weak, and weak-minded, to manage any such thing as diplomacy.