David Rothkopf

The return of Plan B: emerging power diplomacy in the Middle East

Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability — especially given the Iranians’ decision to ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability — especially given the Iranians’ decision to simultaneously announce that they will continue their enrichment program in any event. Indeed, it, like the sanctions program the United States has been engineering, seems more likely to simply hit the "pause" rather than the "reset" button, thus buying the one commodity the Iranians want most: time.

That said the effort is significant on another level. It represents the return of Plan B both to Middle Eastern and global relations. During the Cold War, international actors typically had a binary choice. They could seek the favor and advocacy of the East or the West, the Soviets or the Americans. Then, almost twenty years ago that all ended. And for a while it appeared, the choice was America or an international community that couldn’t get its act together terribly effectively. 

But Turkey and Brazil working closely with Russia, India, and China, have effectively sent a message that Plan B has returned to the global equation. They have essentially said they didn’t want to go along with the American approach to solving the problem (sanctions) and were vehemently against the Israeli approach (bombs away). The Turks in particular have been vocal with their BRIC partners in expressing their skepticism of the effectiveness of sanctions and their sense they would be very counterproductive.

The Iranians in turn seem to have recognized that the Brazil-Turkey deal is a win-win for them. It makes them look like they want to be constructive and thus takes the heat off of them and buys time. They get to tip the geopolitical scales in the direction of the relevance of emerging powers, tweak the U.S. efforts, and seemingly help usher in a new era in international diplomacy.

Something else vitally important to notice has happened here. This has become the first Middle Eastern stand-off in which the most important player from outside the region was China — because China is the one country that had and has the power to determine whether or not a sanctions regime would work. The Chinese, while still internally debating just how much they want to lead on the international stage, have played this deftly so far. They have engaged in talks with the United States and with their BRIC plus one partners. They have evaluated. Behind the scenes they have been constructive and moderate with reports coming out of recent meetings among BRIC leaders that they have made the case for understanding the pressure that President Obama is under. And they have pressed the Iranians to make a deal while sharing like the others in the emerging power leadership a healthy skepticism of Iranian motives and likely compliance.

Thus this deal may seem smallish and technical from afar, but it could well signal a change in the way international diplomacy works. Certainly, it signals an intent on the part of a group of vitally important emerging powers not to be cowed by the "with us or against us" mindset that still permeates some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Whether the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran ultimately actually defuses the stand-off between Tehran and the international community remains to be seen. And even if it does, it seems unlikely to actually stop Ahmadinejad & Co. from continuing surreptitious efforts to cultivate nuclear weapons capability — especially given the Iranians’ decision to simultaneously announce that they will continue their enrichment program in any event. Indeed, it, like the sanctions program the United States has been engineering, seems more likely to simply hit the "pause" rather than the "reset" button, thus buying the one commodity the Iranians want most: time.

That said the effort is significant on another level. It represents the return of Plan B both to Middle Eastern and global relations. During the Cold War, international actors typically had a binary choice. They could seek the favor and advocacy of the East or the West, the Soviets or the Americans. Then, almost twenty years ago that all ended. And for a while it appeared, the choice was America or an international community that couldn’t get its act together terribly effectively. 

But Turkey and Brazil working closely with Russia, India, and China, have effectively sent a message that Plan B has returned to the global equation. They have essentially said they didn’t want to go along with the American approach to solving the problem (sanctions) and were vehemently against the Israeli approach (bombs away). The Turks in particular have been vocal with their BRIC partners in expressing their skepticism of the effectiveness of sanctions and their sense they would be very counterproductive.

The Iranians in turn seem to have recognized that the Brazil-Turkey deal is a win-win for them. It makes them look like they want to be constructive and thus takes the heat off of them and buys time. They get to tip the geopolitical scales in the direction of the relevance of emerging powers, tweak the U.S. efforts, and seemingly help usher in a new era in international diplomacy.

Something else vitally important to notice has happened here. This has become the first Middle Eastern stand-off in which the most important player from outside the region was China — because China is the one country that had and has the power to determine whether or not a sanctions regime would work. The Chinese, while still internally debating just how much they want to lead on the international stage, have played this deftly so far. They have engaged in talks with the United States and with their BRIC plus one partners. They have evaluated. Behind the scenes they have been constructive and moderate with reports coming out of recent meetings among BRIC leaders that they have made the case for understanding the pressure that President Obama is under. And they have pressed the Iranians to make a deal while sharing like the others in the emerging power leadership a healthy skepticism of Iranian motives and likely compliance.

Thus this deal may seem smallish and technical from afar, but it could well signal a change in the way international diplomacy works. Certainly, it signals an intent on the part of a group of vitally important emerging powers not to be cowed by the "with us or against us" mindset that still permeates some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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