It has been unkindly said that a diplomat is someone who is sent abroad to lie for his country. In fact, skilled diplomats would not lie, but they can be very parsimonious with the truth. Just as in real life, it is not good policy to tell people that they are ugly – even if it is true. If you are trying to reconcile enemies, you chose your words carefully. George Orwell wrote disparagingly in The Politics of the English Language about how official speech “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details”, but that is precisely what you have to do to get warring parties who are not necessarily rational in their discourse to talk to one another.
Fudging issues is often crucial to securing agreement to talks, and so Iran’s invitation to Geneva involved eliding the issue of whether Iran explicitly accepted the communiqué on which the talks were based. It had not done so explicitly, but showed signs that it could be nudged that way.
So Ban, with the full knowledge of the US, invited Iran to the talks, despite the fudge on whether Teheran had signed off on the Geneva communiqué. He was taking a bold risk. He rightly believed that Iran should be there, but the talks were the property of the participants, each of which had an implicit veto.
It was a delicate operation, depending on complicity and discretion from all parties. Someone somewhere blew hard enough to bring the house of cards down. The US side seems to have belatedly demanded explicit guarantees of Iranian acceptance of the communiqué, which precipitated an explicit repudiation of them from Teheran. That led to Washington demanding that Ban withdraw the invitation to Iran. US briefers immediately began to castigate Ban’s incompetence even though it was US diplomatic ineptitude that seems to have precipitated the collapse.
This is stupid on so many levels, not least since it owed as much to covering the rears of Barack Obama and John Kerry. This debacle, unfairly, had Ban dubbed the US’s poodle by some and incompetent by others for taking a step with the full knowledge of the US administration but which the US then expediently repudiated.
Because Obama and Kerry were, quite correctly, talking to Iran on the nuclear issue. But they were on a short leash from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Iranian entanglements. This time the dog had more than one tail. There was external pressure from Gulf Arabs and Israel, and the internal pressure from the US Congress being whipped in by AIPAC. The US could have expressed its regrets at the Iranian invitation, and let it stand. It is not in the long-term interests of Washington, or any other responsible great power, to diminish the appearance of independence by the United Nations.
Ban also, justifiably, feels let down by the Iranians for rising to the American bait so quickly. They should have just shut up and turned up. But the name-calling cannot disguise the inalienable truth that, if the talks are to be successful, then the Iranians should be involved and that Ban was right to invite them.
As a corollary, if the US had a joined-up foreign policy, it would build on its common ground with Iran – in Iraq, in Afghanistan and increasingly on the nuclear issue, to persuade the ayatollahs that there were advantages in working with the US to force Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.
Indeed, the US could try to persuade the Arab Iran-haters to cease their pernicious activities in backing terrorist bands in Syria that tend to make Assad look good even as they open a fifth column in the opposition’s ranks.
In the end, the Geneva talks epitomise the UN’s dilemma. The organisation is needed to provide a neutral space, an arena for the negotiations. But the UN needs the active collaboration of its most powerful and involved members states to produce results. A Secretary General can only play the hand he is dealt. In this case, Ban’s two aces turned out to be to jokers. He should not let it dissuade him from trying to do the right thing in the future.