« The international task ahead. | Main | Zimbabwe must change and South Africa must act. »

Review of Paul Sharp’s “Sustainable Diplomacy and the US-Iranian Conflict" Clingendael Diplomacy Papers No. 17, The Hague, October 2008.

Recently the Alworth Institute hosted a very successful event on the culture and politics of Iran that managed to avoid any direct discussion of the policy conflict between Iran and the United States with respect to Iran’s desire to develop a nuclear energy capacity capable of developing nuclear weapons. What we were looking for at the event was another view on Iran. However the policy conflict between Iran and the United States is real and dangerous. Knowing more about each other, one of the aims of the recent Alworth event, is not enough to resolve an issue at the international level, though it does tell us something about the longer-term consequences of (say) armed conflict or about domestic contexts that make the stories about the “other" subject to change. States and state actors behave in ways that differ from ordinary people in ordinary everyday life. In his Clingendael paper, Sharp sets out to examine the prospects for diplomacy in the context of a relationship that he describes as “one of the most dangerous in contemporary international relations". Paul Sharp in Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael). What does Sharp see as the problem? What means does he see for a resolution that avoids outright warfare?

The dispute is clear enough. The Iranians see the development of a nuclear energy capacity as both a right and essential to the legitimate interests of Iran, essential to its national security, and in a smart move, “to the security and dignity of the entire Islamic world" (neatly ignoring, in this claim, that Pakistan has nuclear capacity). The United States and Israel take a different view and perhaps a more extreme view than others in the international community as they characterize Iran in essentially "rogue state" terms. To prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capacity, the United States has stated that it will use force if no other means is possible. Sharp sees the use of force as problematic, likely to lead to unpredictable and unhelpful and stressful outcomes and to the continuation of Iran’s policy under even more unstable circumstances.

There are many stories that can be told and have been told about Iran and the west. Sharp cuts through these and asks in essence (I paraphrase): “Where are the diplomats, and where is diplomacy in this context?��? The stories that are being told present the diplomats as “disposable" and the diplomats as “constrained by the calculations and insecurities of those that they represent".. What Sharp points out that by concentrating on the policy objectives the current stories “neglect the relationship itself" and how it may be made to work. The stories (and the policies too?) “are not the product of diplomatic thinking grounded in a diplomatic understanding of what is going on".

What, then, according to Sharp, constitutes such diplomatic thinking? Sharp, in a subtle argument, constructs “diplomats" as actors that who occupy the “places" in between. By this he means a potential available space between one government and a given dominant discourse, and another government and its dominant discourse. The space in between ought to make it possible for diplomats to see the whole rather than the predetermined and essentially partial view of each set discourse. The wider views can assist in constraining the otherwise inevitable negative outcomes. He sees the space as suggesting the possibility of “maintaining distance" and hence of the possibility of modifications.

What is needed are opportunities for “sustainable diplomacy". This in the first instance means the commitment and determination to continue talking, and to talk without preconditions (as suggested since by President elect Obama). Iran and the US have talked but not in the context of sustainable diplomatic relations Sharp argues for the need for defined actors; the terms on which talking takes place; and the representation of the talks to domestic audiences. Talking in Sharp’s sense in such fraught situations is about talking itself and not necessarily about anything beyond it simply in order to keep contact, to maintain the potential space (if I understand the argument correctly. There is in such contexts a disposition to “appease". This is a loaded word, particularly in the United States. Try replacing it with the notion of a disposition to “accommodate". This disposition Sharp sees as central to successful diplomacy.

Sharp argues that in the diplomatic space the US-Iranian relationship can be reconsidered. The two sides should “jointly and openly consider the possible consequences of the other party of the one party getting what it wants". This would raise other questions concerning accommodation such as how the wider world could live with the outcomes e.g. either turning a blind eye or surrounding Iran “with [a] collective deterrence system".. As each party is treated in turn, Sharp argues that a range of possible answers will merge. These scenarios could help slow down the inevitability of war or could restart domestic discussions about alternatives. This is traditional diplomacy but the world has changed and diplomacy is not isolated and discreet. This is a difficulty but it is not un-surmountable though this needs further exploration and specification.

Talk, properly contextualized and properly exploratory and based on sustained professional diplomacy is essential. This talk does not require the full panoply, according to Sharp, of diplomatic exchanges but it does require that diplomats can still operate discursively in the spaces in between. Will it work in the context of the United States and Iran? The only answer here is, try it and see. A new administration at least makes the experiment possible.