US, Iran should heed call for change in diplomatic mood

US, Iran should heed call for change in diplomatic mood

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Firefighters disinfect the streets of Tehran amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters)

It has been some two weeks since UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made his plea for a global cease-fire as the scale of the onslaught of coronavirus became clear. He pointed out that war-torn areas and places to which millions of refugees had fled were particularly vulnerable to the virus, and only a swift end to the fighting could allow the necessary medical and health infrastructure to be provided.

His plea was echoed around the world by diplomats and leaders, who coupled their support with the hope that the enormity of what mankind was facing might also prompt a diplomatic rethink in other areas of confrontation, providing a “ladder to climb down” for the most intractable of disputes, which have led incalculable numbers to long-term misery. 

As there are very few arguments in favor of conflict, such pleas should command rhetorical support and perhaps also, unusually, some degree of practical response. So what have we seen? It has not been entirely cynical, though it is difficult to disentangle what has resulted from the plea from other causes.

Leaders in the Philippines, Sudan and Ukraine backed the call. Israel and its neighbors in Ramallah and Gaza are working together — to a degree — aware of a virus that recognizes no checkpoints or occupied territory. The UN General Assembly backed a sympathetic resolution. But it’s not good everywhere. Although Syria has seen a reduction in fighting, sporadic incidents remain and locals believe that a wave of fear of illness running through the Syrian regime forces is more responsible for the diminution of their violence than anything else. In Libya, there is evidence that politicians from east and west have reached out to each other in tackling the virus outbreak, though an attempted cease-fire did not hold and attacks on Tripoli continue. In Yemen, an upsurge of violence further threatens a weary population and a Houthi missile attack on Riyadh seemed an apt answer as to how the insurgents interpreted Guterres’ plea, even as Saudi Arabia was reaching out for a resumption of talks. 

We need some evidence that the change of thought behind the call from Guterres was being heeded as much as individual events that might be useful symbols. What he was truly looking for was an indication that states were ready to recognize this severe and likely recurring threat to humanity as an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of diplomacy, rather than simply an event to be taken advantage of before an opponent did so, so as not to lose out when the goodwill dimmed. Because what happens if, as history would suggest it might, the world does not take this opportunity but rather slips back? 

There is a naive belief that no one will be much damaged. If we lose a “kumbaya” moment, the world will revert comfortably to where we were, and those states and individuals whose position is based on having enemies rather than friends — and there are more of them than would admit — can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to ensuring domestic success on the back of targeting some foreigner or other.

But I do not believe in this self-serving and comfortable position. The likelihood is that, if we miss this chance, the path back will have been made seriously harder. If lives are lost because conflict affects the transfer of aid, resulting in a significant number of deaths, are leaders and activists not likely to be more intransigent? Will yet another memory/date be forged on the unending monuments to injustices committed by one against another, only this time shrouded in the awareness of backs being turned when the needy were facing an existential medical catastrophe? How do we return to a status quo after that?

So I am interested in how the US and Iran respond to a call this week from the European Leadership Network for some targeted sanctions relief to assist the Iranian people in dealing with what is perhaps the highest coronavirus mortality rate in the world. This appeal was not made by Scout movement activists, but was signed by former US secretaries of state and defense, four former NATO secretaries-general, and an ex-EU high representative — in all, 24 exceptional people who know what negotiations with Iran are all about. They recognize that events have changed the nature and impact of the existing sanctions, and their targeted call builds on existing exemptions.

If we miss this chance, the path back will have been made seriously harder.

Alistair Burt

They make the point that the handlers of medical devices and goods would be the private sector, and the doctors who would be the beneficiaries of working with them are the pillars of Iranian civil society, not the Iranian government. Such a gesture is not only the right thing to do, but it would also pose a smart challenge to elements in Iran to respond, as they should, and act to protect lives in Europe, America and around the world, as global security emphasizes the importance of protecting the weakest links. 

I commend the plan and urge support and its adoption, as the signatories also recognize that failure to assist has consequences too. Both the Iranian people and the US deserve more than the usual standoff at this time. Let’s see if this well-thought-through work delivers the change of diplomatic mood that Guterres has been looking for. 

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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