The deal with Iran may be the beginning of a new time in the Middle East. Iran's decision to limit its nuclear programme and open it up to intrusive inspection is a demonstration of the many virtues associated with a change of mind. The Iran deal also shows that Europe can play the role of an honest broker. By Martin Griffiths
Compromise instead of perfection
We may or may not believe the artful version eloquently presented by Javid Zarif that Iran never aimed for a nuclear weapon. We may never know whether that is the truth or just a clever spin to sell the deal. By choosing diplomacy and negotiation over isolationist pressures America showed the world that change is possible. But whatever the spin, the deal with Iran has its time limits, and ultimately it is Iran’s decision to determine its future nuclear status. However, the important lesson here is that during the negotiations all sides have chosen compromise over perfection. Or to put it differently: they changed their minds.
I have spent a lifetime observing the great merit of those who change their minds. Unfortunately society often fails to appreciate people who change their minds. Our language is positively biased towards the steady, the aim is to be consistent and reliable. We don’t seem to respect people who change their minds, people who surprise or confuse us; and words such as ‘vacillating’ or ‘fluctuating’ do not have any positive connotation. Seen in this context, the Iran deal is one of those rare examples where an extraordinary long period of negotiation helped to make change possible.
Does a ‘good agreement’ even exist?
The debate surrounding the deal with Iran also threw up another set of questions that mediators and diplomats struggle with. Is the Iran deal a good or a bad compromise? How do we know what a ‘good agreement’ looks like? Does it even exist?
A colleague of mine is helping out in some negotiations between tribal groups from Libya. One of his principal pieces of advice was: a bad ceasefire is worse than no ceasefire. A bad agreement entered can easily fail. And failure saps any confidence that might exist between the parties. I’ve had my fair share of arranging poor agreements; or at least ones which others were quick to point out to be so. I remember helping to arrange the first Aceh cease-fire agreement in 2003 (the so-called 'Cessation of Hostilities Agreement'). Commentators and analysts were quick to point out that the agreement contained too many ambiguities about the future of Aceh. In the end they were half right. The agreement only lasted a few months, but it was the basis for the eventual successful mediation of Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari two years later.
Agreements can be good at first, and bad later. Or the reverse. It's hard to tell. The test is whether an agreement builds trust and if it delivers on its initial promise. Over the years I’ve realised that a simplistic focus on the actual agreement misses the fundamental point of the intricate process of making peace. It is not about legal texts, it is about the people whose whole life hitherto had been devoted to war. The mediator's main job, is less about agreements and more about change. If you can move a man (leaders in war are always men) from waging war to realising the merits of peace, then you have rounded the last turn into the final straight, however long that may be.
The deal with Iran: What next?
So, what do we make of the epic achievement in Vienna? We don’t know yet whether this is going to be a good or a bad agreement. Will it build trust and will it deliver on its promises? Time will tell.
But we do know some things about it: most importantly it has put the West in daily contact with Iran's leaders which is a fact that should not be underestimated. It is an expression of will. The agreement is intended to stop wars, to slow them down, to build trust. It may not work, but I am deeply grateful that we now have the chance to see if the will for peace succeeds.
But everyone around the table need to stay focussed. The hard part is yet to come. Working with Iran on the implementation of the deal will be equally important. It will be a difficult, complex and lengthy task.
Europeans have also learned an important lesson: our identity and our breadth gives us a special place at the table. It is no coincidence that the main responsibility for implementation lies with the EU. Europe often lacks confidence, the EU often shows a unique talent for making simple things complicated, EU leaders prefer to talk about internal issues than thinking about Europe’s place in the world. But this time was different. High Rep Mogherini, and her predecessor Ms Ashton, have been an essential in the negotiations with Iran. It is a success story for Europe and shows what European diplomacy can achieve.
Europe can be an honest broker, it can bring parties together when others cannot. Perhaps the main lesson for Brussels from this nuclear agreement is that ‘yes, we can’ make a difference if we choose to do so. And maybe we should just do it a little more often. Next stop, Syria?
Photo © European Union 2015