A year ago, Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, the level at which it could be quickly converted to bomb-grade, was a serious danger to our safety. However, a few days ago a nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the US that has been rightly called a historic development. This deal was brought about by the success of using diplomacy instead waging war, as has been threatened against Iran for years. Diplomacy has brought about the most significant agreement on nuclear weapons in recent history.

The agreement stipulates that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, “neutralize” its stockpile of uranium that has already been enriched beyond its domestic needs, give greater access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors at its nuclear sites, have no reprocessing and no further development at the “heavy water” facility in Arak. In return, the members of the U.N. Security Council (the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, China) plus Germany, have agreed to impose no new sanctions in addition to providing limited relief from existing sanctions. The goal is that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to non-military nuclear energy.

After a decade of attempting to totally ban enrichment of uranium by Iran, the world powers ultimately accepted that the comprehensive solution would involve a “mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures” to ensure the peaceful nature of the program. The parties negotiated a reciprocal, step-by step process with Iran, which will eventually lead to the comprehensive lifting of all UN Security Council sanctions, as well as multilateral, and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program.

Diplomacy through the efforts of the nuclear negotiation teams, have resulted in a roadmap to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute in a peaceful environment of mutual trust. An additional positive outcome has been the direct discussions between Iran and the US. This means that the two States are now communicating at a higher level, for the first time since the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. The deal has opened the door for a constructive engagement of the two governments regarding other current crises such as the ones in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The expectation is that the higher level of communication during such negotiations will open up a new path toward a Middle East and world that are more secure.

The success of diplomacy in this instance gives us a reason to be optimistic about the future for better controls and limits on ”new” nuclear weapons states. However, it is worth noting that all the permanent members of the UN security council that were in the negotiations with Iran have their own nuclear arsenals. Currently, Russia and the United States each have about 10,000 nuclear warheads, of which about half are awaiting dismantlement. France has around 300, the United Kingdom about 225 and China roughly 240. Additionally, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is another obvious example of this double standard given its status as the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.

Diplomacy has been successful in this instance, and non-proliferation initiatives like this are an essential part of the nuclear disarmament process in the world. However, it seems unbalanced to have so much concern about nuclear bombs that do not yet exist, and so little apparent concern for the thousands of nuclear bombs that already do. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) have all ratified the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but none has fulfilled its commitment under the NPT to give up its nuclear weapons.  Perhaps the next step should be to utilize diplomacy to achieve universal nuclear disarmament.

In any event, the world should be heartened by the fact that instead of violence our governments are seeing the merits of diplomacy instead of war; and in this instance it has proven successful.

The Syrian Conflict and the International Community: To Do Something or to Do Nothing, that is the Question

Violence in Syria has escalated into what has been labeled a civil war. According to the UN more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which is increasingly losing territory to rebel fighters, blames “terrorists” and “armed gangs” for the unrest, while the opposition and other nations have accused Assad’s forces of crimes against humanity.

To provide some background on the conflict it is important to know that Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites – the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs – and Christians. Mr. Assad has concentrated power in the hands of his family and other Alawites. The family of President Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970.  Under Mr. Assad’s rule, critics have been imprisoned, domestic media has been tightly controlled, and economic policies have often benefited the elite. The country’s human rights record is among the worst in the world.

Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on their school’s walls in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims’ funerals, killing another person. People thereafter began publicly demanding the overthrow of Mr. Assad in a way that had not previously occurred.

The Assad regime first reacted with a combination of minor concessions. It ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution. However, the authorities continued to use violence, besieging opposition strongholds. The UN became involved and instituted a ceasefire, which soon was violated by both sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, have demanded an end to violence and have called for stronger international action, but China and Russia oppose sanctions and military intervention.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. -Arab League special envoy for Syria, told the Security Council this week that Syria had plunged into “unprecedented levels of horror.” He told the UN Security Council it had to act now to halt the carnage epitomized by the killing of at least 78 young men, who were found shot with a single bullet and dumped in a river in the battlefront city of Aleppo. Syria “is breaking up before everyone’s eyes,” Brahimi told the council’s 15 ambassadors. “Only the international community can help, and first and foremost the Security Council.”

The United States and European council members blame Russia, a staunch ally and key arms supplier for Assad’s government, and China for the Council’s inaction on the conflict. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad and reject the idea of sanctioning his government. Iran’s support to the Assad regime has mapped Syria even further into the international context. The question of international engagement must be considered.

The international community, via the UN Security Council could pass a resolution to set up a transitional government to attempt an end to the bloodshed. International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said last week he could not move forward with a peace plan unless it was backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution and he warned that a ceasefire would only hold if it was overseen by a peacekeeping mission.

While Russia, China, and the rest of the world make up their mind about what to do about the Syrian conflict, Assad’s regime continues to commit crimes against humanity. On the other hand, given the experience in Egypt some say that perhaps it is better to let the Syrians to figure out their fate without arming the insurgents.

I suggest the following questions for reflection; do we do nothing when we know innocent people continue to die? Can the world afford another unstable “democracy” in the Middle East? Is this a precursor of a new cold war with Russia and China on one side and western allies on the other?


Intolerance, Terrorism and International Diplomacy

On Tuesday, September 11, individuals identified in media reports as armed “Islamist militants” stormed a United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three members of his staff.

The attack in Libya, which came hours after a mob stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the U.S. flag, was presumed to have been triggered by a movie, whose trailer had gone viral on YouTube. Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the US, promoted the film on his website last week. Koran burning, Florida pastor Terry Jones also promoted the film in his church.  Within days it was fuelling outrage in Arab countries horrified at the depiction in the movie of the prophet Muhammad as an illegitimate, murderous pedophile.

By all accounts Mr. Stevens was very much respected and a loved figure within the Libyan community. He had served twice previously in Libya, including as a special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council from March to November 2011, helping to save the city of Benghazi during the country’s revolution. Hours after Stevens’ death, Libyans had started an Arabic-language Facebook tribute page for him where they shared photos of the ambassador — in one picture he can be seen at a local restaurant sitting with some locals and eating local food with his hand. They also posted pictures of themselves holding candles lit in his memory.

In her official statement after the events Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that: “Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith and as long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.”

As we grieve after yet more senseless killings in the name of religion we must ask important questions:

What do we do about religious intolerance on the part of anti Islamists, who feel they can gratuitously insult those who do not share their beliefs?

Should we continue sending diplomatic missions, that often help local people, to countries such as Libya or Egypt, knowing that their political unrest make them unsafe?

And, the most difficult question of all, what can we do to eradicate terrorism? Is that even possible to achieve?