Saturday 7 December 2013

Enter Saudi-Iranian “Track II diplomacy”

This is my paraphrasing of the weekly think piece penned in Arabic by Saudi mass media celebrity Jamal Khashoggi for al-Hayat newspaper
“Conflict resolution” specialists note that forthright negotiations between two adversaries often fail when held in the public eye.
This is because of pressure official negotiators come under from their political mentors, as well as from their core supporters who monitor the talks and want to know their secrets from journalists present at or around the negotiations venue.
Whether the journalists’ leaks prove wrong or word-perfect, their effect is often negative.
An issue that was already settled suddenly gets complicated and another that was not on the agenda crops up from nowhere.
Lying in wait are two oppositions trying to raise the stakes and embarrass the two sides.
The “conflict resolution” specialists thus spread and defined the concept of “Track II diplomacy” aimed at fixing a conflict situation.
“Track II diplomacy” would kickoff by arranging for secret talks at a countryside resort or a remote state, initially involving secondary academics and activists.
Some of the latter don’t realize their country’s leadership is aware of the negotiations. They believe they are engaged in scientific research.
Once “Track II diplomacy” makes progress and paves the way for blueprints of an acceptable understanding on which an agreement could be based, the level of participants is raised and the parties start serious negotiations.
They begin exchanging documents setting out the rules of negotiation and the mandatory nature of bilateral agreements.
This is what happened between the Palestinians and Israelis in the early 1990s.
While the late Haidar Abdel-Shafi, Hanan Ashrawi (do you recall those names?) and other members of the Palestinian national movement were engaging the Israelis in tough negotiations at the Madrid conference of 1991, “Track II diplomacy” was underway in a distant corner of northern Europe – namely, in the Norwegian capital Oslo.
The breakthrough came in Oslo.
And the Oslo Accord governs the lives of Gazans and West Bankers today, whether for better or worse depending on one’s political outlook.
I liked this idea.
I thus decided to volunteer and initiate a “Track II initiative” between my native country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
My decision came after the so-called “Saudi-Iranian impasse” came to light and raised the prospects of problems in the region, the likely escalation on the ground in Syria and elsewhere and the exchange of bombing and counter-bombing charges.
This transpired after the November 24 agreement between the 5+1 world powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program and the looming honeymoon in bilateral relations between Iran and the U.S. without a similar breakthrough on the horizon between Riyadh and Tehran.
That’s why I seized the opportunity of my participation in three research workshops over the last three weeks, which took me to Washington, the English countryside and Vienna to test “Track II diplomacy” with Iranian researchers I met there.
Indeed, I came across three of them: a Washington-based researcher, and two others based in Tehran – the first is a consultant to one of the ministries and the other is a political science professor.
Before any of the readers gets excited and describes what took place as official and serious, let me reiterate that it was neither.
Discussions took place on the sidelines of the conference during intermissions or over dinners.
None of us took down notes, but everyone welcomed the idea of “Track II diplomacy” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This is not astounding.
Throughout his recent Gulf tour, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not cease calling for a get together that would promote cooperation, devotion and brotherhood with the kingdom.
But Mr. Zarif reminds me of what I told the Iranian political professor in Vienna: “You want to eat the lamb and at the same time leave it whole to graze hillsides and slopes. You want good relations with the kingdom without pulling out of Syria, for example, or ending your intervention elsewhere in the region.”
At the beginning of our “Track II diplomacy,” the Iranians resorted to cliché expressions such as, “What is Syrian democracy to you? You’re not a democratic state.”
I think my answer was convincing.
I said, “Yes, this is true. But we did not call for or trigger the Syrian revolution. The Syrian people are calling for regime change. We either accept their call as bona fide or let them slay you and the Syrian regime’s people.
“Even if we let down the Syrian people, they won’t acquiesce and they would keep up their uprising. The longer their struggle goes on, the deeper your involvement in it.”
One of my interlocutors retorted saying not all people are against Bashar al-Assad and elections are the only way forward.
We ended our discussion by agreeing that Saudi-Iranian cooperation at Geneva-2 was imperative. I kept insisting that talk of cooperation or elections at Geneva-2 or elsewhere is haywire so long as a lone Syrian soldier continues to fire at his own people with Iranian help.
In another round of “Track II diplomacy” with the Iranian ministry’s consultant, I enumerated the instances of Iranian meddling in the region before asking him bluntly: “Have you a similar list of complaints against Saudi interventions in Iran?”
His answer: “I am not familiar with such security issues… The kingdom did not truly accept the Islamic Republic, choosing to deceive it instead. The kingdom warmly welcomed any aggression against the Islamic Republic by Israel or the United States.”
I denied this, basing myself on several bilateral agreements signed by the two neighbors -- some of them are of a security nature -- and on the exchange of formal visits.
I also pointed out that kingdom has invariably opposed military action against Iran and undertaken not to join any of them.
We continued our discourse over dinner, when we shared a meal of “Wiener Schnitzel” with mashed potatoes on the side.
Our rapprochement was self-evident. We both stopped resorting to controversial slogans used in televised debates only.
We agreed peace would be mutually beneficial.
He told me Iran was groaning under the weight of sanctions and wants to channel its economic resources to economic development.
The political science professor said a third of Iran’s youths are unemployed and Tehran intended to curtail its foreign interventions in the next decade.
“Why should it wait a decade,” I said in reply. “That will prove costly to her and to us.”
“Better you get to know Iran from the inside,” he retorted. “It hasn’t got one lone force only. You’ve got to talk to everyone there.”
It was an encouraging first foray by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran into “Track II diplomacy.”
But the exercise requires patience. It also calls for awareness that it will be a very long journey the two neighbors embarked on over 3,000 years ago.
Why not resume it – even without letup in our bilateral confrontation?