Going Small: The Case For ‘Minilateralism’ on Iran

Picco, the veteran UN negotiator who helped free 11 Western hostages in Lebanon, argues for a direct US channel with Iran. He writes that the trend in successful conflict resolution is minilateralism, not multilateralism, and understanding the narrative of who you are dealing with.

al-monitor US President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Oval Office on Sept. 28, 2012. Obama and Netanyahu expressed solidarity on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the White House said. Photo by REUTERS/Pete Souza/The White House/Handout.

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us, security, sanctions, obama, nuclear, iran sanctions, iran, diplomacy

Nov 17, 2012

There is some buzz about the prospects for a direct US-Iran diplomatic channel, which is long overdue.

When asked Wednesday, President Barack Obama said, “I will try to make a push in the coming months to see if we can open up a dialogue between Iran and not just us, but the international community, to see if we can get this things resolved.”

Russia, one of the six members of P5+1, has for the first time publicly urged Washington and Tehran to start direct bilateral talks to avoid a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.

The multilateral P5+1 (The US, UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany) forum has been effective in showing Iran a somewhat united front, and keeping up the pressure through sanctions. It is nonetheless a dead end on substantive negotiations that would break the gridlock in US-Iran relations, which, if solved, would accelerate the nuclear talks. 

The failure of the P5+1 for actual conflict resolution is yet another example of the mythology of the “multilateral” approach to negotiations. In fact, UN-led multilateral mediation efforts have been largely useless in negotiating conflicts for the past 20 years.

The new trend in conflict resolution strategy is moving toward reducing the number of negotiating parties in the room. “Minilateralism” has become the new rule for successful conflict resolution, or better yet — direct bilateral talks.

The golden age of UN multilateralism peacemaking coincided with the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev in the waning days of the former Soviet Union. The UN was then a venue for solving conflicts and not merely for freezing them. From 1985 through 1992, conflict resolution, under new approaches, allowed the UN to end the Iran-Iraq war, help broker the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, end the civil war in El Salvador, free Western hostages in Lebanon and finalize Namibian independence. Few may remember that the very word “peacemaking” was prohibited in a UN context until Javier Pérez de Cuellar, UN secretary general from 1982 to 1991, adopted it during this time.

Since 1992, however, from the Balkans to Somalia, Rwanda, Central Africa and Sudan, whatever solutions achieved were done via minilateralism or not all. The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnia war were not a UN affair but choreographed by the late Richard Holbrooke; a number of conflict-related issues since then — Northern Ireland comes to mind — have also been resolved by mini-groups and individuals invited to do so by other nations.

In 1996, when a few countries pushed for reform of the Security Council, I published an article calling for a rotating "six-member" Council whose membership would change according to nations’ qualifications to resolve a given conflict. Sixteen years later, we are still debating the reform of the Council but only as a matter of numerical enlargement — and by now the multilateral approach to conflict resolution is a thing of the past.

As a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations and diplomat who has spent my career dealing with conflict in the Levant and elsewhere, I have learned that theories and treatises of learned professors or diplomats are useful only as reading for recreation.

The key to diplomacy  may well reside in entering the mind of the other to get to know whom you are dealing with. Understanding the “narratives” — national but most of all, individual (which derive from so-called history but mostly  from each of our family stories) — of those with whom one is negotiating is far more valuable, whether the negotiating partner is Saddam Hussein or the former Hezbollah security chief, Imad Mughniyeh  or for that matter the "bureaucrat assigned to face you." 

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who did his best  to oppose the end of the Iran Iraq war in 1988, was forced to do so on Aug. 8, 1988, only after UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, despite Iraq's departure from the negotiating table, called in Saddam’s "bankers" — that is, Saudi Arabia. Within 48 hours the war was over.

Saddam had made clear years earlier, by the way, that he thought I was anti-Iraqi, (perhaps the first Westerner to be so classified in the early 1980s; he also added that he was my enemy, and in time showed that he meant it. This may have been the price of negotiating with someone such as Saddam.) But we could still talk. He did say that while my position was clear, he had trouble in understanding what use Europeans were: “They are neither friend nor enemy!”

A successful shift from multilateralism to bilateralism in US-Iran talks would reflect the principles and successes of minilateralism. When I negotiated with then Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, I tried to read his “narrative” and he mine. When I negotiated with Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami, I had to read "his narrative," which was different from that of his predecessors because narratives are personal before being national. We negotiate with people, not nations.

I dare suggest on the basis of facts, not theory, that while I can understand the impact on Iranian narrative of the 1953 events, I was surprised that no Western analysts or diplomat  ever recalled publicly  that in 1946-47 the UK and the US  made it possible for Iran to push back the Soviets still occupying  a good part of Northern Iran.  

A little known fact is that there have been  some 12 negotiations between the West and Iran since 1980 and at least 11 have been successful. There were all "mini lateral negotiations." 

The time is now indeed overdue to recognize what has been successful over the last 20 years and what was not. It is time to go small on US-Iran talks.  Hopefully this lost time can be made up quickly. That will not come in a conference room around a large table with representatives of many vying for the floor. It will perhaps be in a quiet room down the hall or down the street, among a small group of negotiators who do not seek the nonexistent “impartiality" some negotiators claim is required, and instead seek to understand the "respective narratives, both national and individual, of the parties, and thus can possibly see the 'mind of men .'"

Giandomenico Picco is a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations for Political Affairs and veteran negotiator with Iran who helped free 11 Western hostages in Lebanon. He is the author of “Man Without a Gun: One Diplomat's Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War” and of an upcoming book, co-authored by Dr. Gabrielle Rifkind, “The Fog of Peace.”

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