There is no shortage of commentary on why the talks between Iran and the P5+1 group – the five permanent security council members plus Germany – should or shouldn't be happening, can or can't work. As talks resume later this month regardless, it might be more interesting to think about what actual detente would look like. To give ourselves a yardstick by which to judge if progress is truly being made, we must look not so much to overt confidence-building measures, but rather to the subtler signals and movements that take place behind and beyond negotiations and lay the groundwork for each next step.
The last decade has provided three main reference points of countries, following periods of isolation, reengaging with world powers: Libya, Iraq, and Myanmar.
The Libyan case is overshadowed by the outsized personality of Muammar Qaddafi and Britain’s peculiar interest in the process, and then book-ended by the 2011 civil war. Iraq was more even exogenous, the prior regime crushed by a US war machine that proved less adept at occupation. Historic highs in oil production and shocking levels of civil violence resulted.
Myanmar, by contrast, was a decidedly diplomatic process. A rocky progress continues, and for now it looks set to avoid the levels of violence seen elsewhere. It may, then, provide an interesting comparison for seeing how diplomacy with Iran can similarly advance, and what might set it back.
The UN will increasingly invest in good offices to Iran
The Secretariat has been diligent about maintaining 'good offices' – mediation efforts, often with a dedicated envoy – with Myanmar, even when then-envoy Alvaro de Soto recommended a tactical step back in 1999.
Under Razali Ismail's charge between 2000 and 2005, the issue then upgraded when it fell to new under-secretary-general for political affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, and stayed with him as he shifted to a special advisor role to secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Gamberi, among other achievements, established a formal 14-nation 'Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar', including all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2010 the brief remained high level, going to Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar.
Whatever they do or don't achieve, good offices are, importantly, a clear statement of political will. The effort was envisioned as mediating between factions in Myanmar, but envoys seem to have found their greatest success in mediating between the junta and the outside world.
A similar effort has already begun with Iran. The current UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, has now made two trips in the last 15 months (as a former US ambassador, these trips also make him the highest-ranking former US official to visit Iran since 1979). It remains to be seen whether the same cultivation of expertise and decades-long commitment will follow.
Negotiations will not dilate into internal political issues
A report issued last year by the International Peace Institute suggests that the use of good offices in Burma as an internal democracy-promoting tool 'was a first for the UN'. It was certainly something that a number of envoys saw as damaging to their mission.
In 2011 Razali pointed to the singular focus on democracy, at the expense of economic issues, as a major mistake. Gamberi, having left the post, similarly highlighted the desire to shape internal political developments as a major hindrance. Referring to the seven-point roadmap to democracy announced by the Burma government in 2003, he said, “We should have focused on supporting it, not changing it. I . . . failed to get the West to recognize any forward movement.”
Economic and development issues, on the other hand, will be emphasized by both sides
In July 2009, a visit to Burma by Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of the UN's economic and social commission for Asia and the pacific (ESCAP), ended, much to Heyzer's surprise, with the announcement of a Myanmar-ESCAP development partnership.
A breakthrough for the UN in Myanmar, it happened outside the good offices and is perhaps best understood as an extension of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which struck in May 2008. The greatest natural disaster ever recorded in Myanmar, the official death toll was 140,000. Initial reluctance to accept help gradually gave way to a UN/ASEAN/Burma government tripartite group, coordinating an unprecedented UN presence in the country, and new levels of cooperation between UN agencies and funds and the government. Humanitarian and socioeconomic need had become the critical basis for trust-building and cooperation.
The new Iranian government's political agenda is unambiguously based on lifting sanctions, the measures imposed by the US, the European Union, and international financial institutions in 2012 proving economically calamitous. Moving forward, humanitarian and development issues are the areas likely to hold greater hope for cooperation. Iran has already signaled its interest in attracting international investment into its energy sector.
The P5+1 will, as far as possible, avoid association with competing factions in Iran
In November 2007, Gambari, mindful of opposition discontent with the UN good offices for their commitment to official channels, accepted to deliver a statement on behalf Aung San Suu Kyi. The governing junta were livid; Gambari had been made a spokesman of the opposition. Caught between the distrust of both sides, his authority never recovered.
Already the government in Iran is under attack for its willingness to negotiate. Being too highly praised by foreign partners, or held too close, could be politically lethal.
And finally, diplomats will be allowed to talk with one another – at all levels
In September 2009, two months after Hayzer's ad hoc tour of the country, the Obama administration announced, having reviewed policy, it would now complement sanctions on Burma with direct engagement – meaning it would permit US diplomats to speak to Burma diplomats on all levels, not just at showpiece meetings or conferences. The world’s major power was now part of a process, not just part of the opposition. That November, assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell became the highest-ranking US official to visit Burma in 14 years.
Currently, a US diplomat, sunning himself at a barbecue in, say, the UAE, must, upon learning that an Iranian official has arrived, make his excuses without delay – outside of specific headline meetings (Istanbul, Baghdad, Moscow, Geneva), officials are not to engage or acknowledge Iranian counterparts at all. Whether the phone call that took place in September between presidents Obama and Rouhani has already changed this is unclear.
Underscoring the importance of open communication, a Wall Street Journal report claims that a history of clandestine talks between the US State Department and Iranian officials has been critical to the recent breakthrough. Broadening these links can enable more breakthroughs, and improve the prospects for lasting detente.
There are major differences between Burma and Iran, no doubt. The former lacks the recent history of animosity Iran shares with the UK, US, and others. Iran, until recently at least, lacked the oppositional aristocracy embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi. Southeast Asia is arguably less volatile than the Mideast, and no commodity dominates national economies and regional geostrategies as hydrocarbons do the Persian Gulf.
But there are evident parallels in terms of how the diplomatic processes have advanced, and may yet do so. It seems reasonable to draw lessons from the ebb and flow of the Burma process – still in transition after four years of internal and external political thaw.
Some may look to Burma and decide that it was internal political shifts that enabled what has followed. But this view ignores two things: the decade preceding 2009, and the fact that negotiating, like ballroom dancing, is apt to disappoint when performed alone. When the UN's good offices were perceived as the thin end of a wedge of political interference, envoy after envoy left post in frustration. When the junta became convinced that the UN and others could help them deliver socioeconomic imperatives for the country, they engaged. Once US policy engaged also, that is when real progress started to be made.