If Washington thinks it now faces complications on getting United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran, that’s not the half of it. A greater obstacle is the subtle change introduced into international power relationships by the actions of Brazil and Turkey that has accompanied it.
These two medium-size powers, Brazil and Turkey, have just challenged the guiding hand of Washington in determining nuclear strategy towards Iran. They undertook their own initiative to persuade Iran to accede to a deal on the handling of nuclear fuel issues. Not only was that initiative entirely independent, it moved ahead in the face of fairly crude American warnings to both states not to contemplate it – even though it closely paralleled one offered to Iran last year that fell through, mainly due to Iranian maneuvering and its fundamental distrust of Washington’s intent and blustering style.
Adding insult to injury, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both had the temerity to actually succeed in their negotiations with Iran while Washington was publicly predicting their certain (and hoped for) failure.
Are the Iranians simply engaging in another con game, playing for time – a maneuver at which they excel? Or has something more profound taken place?
First, it is not only the terms of the deal that matter, but the messengers and atmospherics. Washington for decades has dealt with Iran – almost always indirectly – with considerable truculence and belligerence as the background music to “negotiations.” This is business as usual – the world’s sole superpower demanding others to agree to its strategy of the moment.
When Mr. Lula and Mr. Erdogan came to Tehran, the game was entirely different. It wasn’t the content so much as the negotiators, the venue, and the atmospherics. Tehran did not feel this time that it was acceding to superpower pressure, but to a reasoned and respectful request by two significant peer states in the world with no record of imperialism in Iran. In one sense, the deal was almost bound to succeed. What Iran wants as much as anything in this world is to blunt US dominance of the international order, and especially its ability to dictate terms in the Middle East.
If Iran is to yield at all on nuclear policy, what better device than to accede to two respected and successful states that were themselves defying Washington’s wishes in even attempting negotiations? If Tehran had refused that offer, it might have torpedoed the very concept of independent alternative, non-American efforts in international strategy. It made all the sense in the world for Iran to say “yes” this time to this combination of approach.
The same goes for China and Russia. After the Lula-Erdogan success, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately proclaimed her own success at garnering Russian and Chinese support for enhanced sanctions against Iran – a stunningly insulting response to the remarkable accomplishment of Brazilian and Turkish negotiation. These states are, after all, immensely important to US regional and global interests. To blow them off like that was a major blunder, not just in terms of Iran, but in broader global strategy. The rest of the world has surely taken further negative note that Washington’s game remains depressingly familiar.
But do we really believe Clinton has in fact garnered Russian and Chinese support? Just as Tehran had every incentive to accept a proposal from “equals,” offered with respect instead of bluster and threats, so too Russia and China have every reason to welcome this initiative from Brazil and Turkey. Yes, the terms of the agreement do matter somewhat, but what is far more important for them is the slow but inexorable decay of US ability to deliver international diktats and to have its way. This is what Chinese and Russian foreign-policy strategy is all about. Neither of these countries will, in the end, permit the US hard-line approach to win out over the Brazilian-Turkish one in the Security Council, even if the Brazilian-Turkish deal requires a little tweaking. Russia and China champion the emergence of multiple sources of global power and influence that chip away at dying American unipolar power.
China and Russia, of course, represent the alternative polarity in the emerging struggle to end American hegemony in international affairs. But of greater moment, they now witness the political center in international politics shifting away from Washington as well. These two countries that defied American wishes are not just some Third World rabble-rousers scoring cheap points off the US. They are two major countries that are supposedly close friends of the US This makes the affront even crueler.
These events are profound signs of the times. The problem with unipolar power is that without checks and balances it invariably becomes subject to error and foolishness. On occasion, Americans actually believe in checks and balances when it comes to our own Constitution. Microsoft may be a great corporation, but nobody wants it to have a monopoly on IT.
Similarly in the world, international checks and balances are valuable safety valves. When Washington moves into its fourth decade of paralysis and incompetence in handling Iran, still unable even to speak to it – just as it cannot bring itself to talk to Cuba after 50 years – it has exacerbated the problem, strengthened Iran and the forces of radicalism in the Middle East, polarized emotions and, worst, failed in all respects. Shouldn’t the world welcome the actions of two significant, responsible, democratic, and rational states to intervene and help check the foolishnesses of decades of US policy? That is what checks and balances are all about and why the center is shifting.
And, who knows? “Rogue states” – a term beloved in Washington in reference to recalcitrant countries that don’t toe the Washington line – may more readily come to accede to new approaches free of the old imperial techniques of interventionism and ultimatums. Meanwhile, the US is rapidly running the risk of becoming its own “failed state” in terms of being able to exercise competent and effective international leadership since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Graham E. Fuller is the former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA and author of numerous books on international politics, including the forthcoming “A World Without Islam” (August 2010).