Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.


Facing the Future United—Indonesia

While I was living in Japan, I discovered once again the extent of my ignorance of the rest of the world. Many of my friends were from countries I knew little if anything about. One of the most striking examples to me was Indonesia. Having met many students from Indonesia during my stay in Japan, I began to realize I knew nothing about their country despite its large population and relevance in ASEAN, a major economic bloc. I began to remedy this flaw even as I studied in Japan, taking a class devoted to ASEAN and its member countries. However, I still know far less than I feel I should about Indonesia along with the rest of the ASEAN states, so when I saw the opportunity to attend a lecture by Indonesian Consul General Nana Yuliana, I jumped at the chance.

The lecture, which took place earlier this week, was incredibly insightful. Dr. Yuliana has worked in a variety of diplomatic roles across the world, including as a member of the UN’s Economic Council, and is currently stationed at the Indonesian consulate in Houston, TX. Her lecture focused on Indonesian foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the US, as well as containing an overview of Indonesia and ASEAN in a global context. She explained the geography, the population demographics, and the post-colonial history of the country. After the dismantling of European colonies at the end of WWII, Indonesia was formed from a large archipelago of disparate cultures and peoples. With over 300 ethnic groups, over 700 languages actively spoken, and a large population of multiple major religious groups, the original and continued unity of Indonesia as a nation-state is a political marvel. Despite significant challenges to this unity, Indonesia, within the first decade of its existence, already turned its gaze outside its borders and sought to take an active role in international politics. In 1955 Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference, a meeting of newly independent Asian and African states uniting against colonialism and neocolonialism. Since then, Indonesia has continued its active participation in several international organizations, particularly ASEAN and the UN, where Indonesia is a candidate as a non-permanent Security Council member for 2019-2020.

Like the rest of the world, Indonesia is facing a host of challenges in today’s political climate. With continued conflict in the South China Sea, the threat of North Korea, and worldwide fears of terrorism, Indonesia has much to concern itself with. More locally, Indonesia has expanded its efforts to accept refugees from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and is serving as a mediator between the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front. Through its efforts in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government is working to promote human rights and democracy throughout the region.

At the same time, however, Indonesia is facing struggles within its own borders. Despite Dr. Yuliana’s praise of Indonesia’s 5% annual GDP growth, my friends from Indonesia have found that national GDP growth does not always translate into actual improved standards of living for the people of a country. Rising prices, stagnant wages, and large public works projects that so far have done very little good for the majority of the population make the realities of Indonesia’s growth much less promising. Careful management and informed economic policy are vital for the Indonesian government in the coming months and years in order to translate short-run growth into reinvestment and long-term sustainable development. Indonesia has come a long way since it invented itself out of the post-WWII ashes of the Dutch East Indies. However, the country still has much growing to do and needs a steady, future-minded hand to lead it up the treacherous path to a bright and secure future for all citizens.

Hazy Horizons

The world is in a state of turbulence; this is a pretty standard belief. But the average standard of living is higher now than ever before in history. The American people are also, on average, safer and more prosperous than ever. So why do we characterize the world as turbulent? It was this question address by Dr. Thomas Finger, a faculty member at Stanford University and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis of the State Department, in his keynote address to round out this year’s International Studies Symposium at the University of Oklahoma.

The world is moving forward and upward, true, but there is still turbulence. This is because, for once, we can’t see the future. We do have enemies today, but they are much harder to identify than in the past. We used to know our enemy, whether Nazi Germany or the communist regime of the USSR. However, using Dr. Finger’s analogy, we have traded in a dragon for baskets of snakes. We cannot focus our energies on a single target, and each of our snakes has to be handled in a different way. Thus, we need to redefine how we deal with the world’s turbulence. Also, part of our problem is the change that has occurred in our definition of national security. We once defined national security in terms of the safety of the US homeland. Now, we have decided that all US citizens must be safe at all times no matter where they are and for what reason. How can we commit to such a promise? Is it even our place to risk our armed forces to save those who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way in the pursuit of glory or riches? I don’t know, but I do know that we need to decide what we can commit to and what is not our battle. The turbulence of this day is different than any we’ve faced before. We need to recognize our new breeds of enemies and develop new methods to fight them while preventing our paranoia from creating more. Our uncertainty cannot be allowed to destabilize us. We must move forward, regardless of the clarity of our horizons.