It may turn out that May 17, 2010 will be remembered as an important milestone on the road to a real new world order.  Remember that the phrase ‘new world order’ came to prominence in 1990 after Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. It was used by George W. H. Bush, the elder of the two Bush presidents, to signify the possibility after the end of the Cold War to find a consensus within the UN Security Council enabling a unified response to aggressive war. The new world order turned out to be a mobilizing idea invoked for a particular situation, and not the beginning of a new framework for collective security. The United States did not want to create expectations that it would always be available to lead a coalition against would be breakers of world peace. The apparent commitment, and even the language, of a ‘new world order’ disappeared altogether from American diplomacy right after the First Gulf War of 1991. What one wonders now is whether the Brazilian/Turkish effort to resolve the Iran nuclear crisis with the West is not more genuinely expressive of a changing global setting, perhaps leading this time to something durable–a ‘real new world order.’

May 17th was the day that the Brazilian/Turkish initiative bore fruit in Tehran, with Iran agreeing to a ten-point arrangement designed to defuse the mounting confrontation with the United States and Israel with regard to its enrichment facilities. The essence of the deal was that Iran would ship 1200 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey for deposit, and receive in return 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20% for use in an Iranian  nuclear reactor devoted to medical research. The agreement reaffirmed support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as acknowledged Iran’s right under the treaty to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, which meant the entire fuel cycle, including the enrichment phase.

The bargain negotiated in Tehran closely resembled an arrangement provisionally reached some months earlier at the initiative of the International Atomic Energy Agency in which Iran had agreed to turn over a similar amount of low enriched uranium to France and Russia in exchange for their promise of providing fuel rods that could be used in the same medical research reactor. That 2009 deal floundered when Iran raised political objections, and then withdrew. The United States had initially welcomed this earlier arrangement as a desirable confidence-building step toward resolving the underlying conflict with Iran, but it wasted no time repudiating the May 17th agreement, which seemed so similar in its content.

How should we understand this discrepancy in the American response? It is true that in recent months Iran has increased its LEU production, making 1200 kg of its existing stockpile amount to 50% of its total rather than the 80% that would have been transferred in the earlier arrangement. Also, there were some unspecified features in the May 17th plan, including how the enriched uranium would be provided to Iran, and whether there would be a system of verification as to its use to produce medical isotopes. In this regard, it would have seemed appropriate for Washington, if genuinely troubled by this, for Washington to express its substantive concerns, such as requesting Iran to transfer a larger quantity of LEU and to spell out the details, but this is not what happened.

Instead of welcoming this notable effort to reduce regional tensions, which it had once encouraged, the Brazilian/Turkish initiative was immediately branded as an amateurish irrelevance by the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. She insisted that the concerns about Iranian nuclear enrichment be left exclusively in the hands of the ‘major powers,’ and immediately rallied China and Russia (in addition to France and the United Kingdom) to support a fourth round of punitive sanctions that were to be presented to the UN Security Council in the near future.  It now appears that the five permanent members of the Security Council will support this intensification of sanctions that is expected to call for an arms embargo on heavy weapons, travel restrictions on Iranian officials, a boycott of banks and companies listed as linked to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and a provocative authority to search ships to and from Iran suspected of carrying prohibited items. Such a resolution if implemented would certainly increase tensions in the Middle East without any discouragement of the Iranian nuclear program.  Indeed a new round of sanctions would almost certainly increase Iran’s incentives to exercise its full rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and complete its development of the complete fuel cycle as has been previously done by several other parties to the treaty, including Japan, Germany, The Netherlands, and ironically, Brazil.

Given the generally constructive character of the agreement reached in Tehran, the uncompromisingly hostile reaction in Washington can only be understood in one of two ways, neither of which is reassuring. If the U.S. Government, with or without Israeli prodding, had already resolved to impose sanctions, then a tension-reducing development of this sort would weaken the case for this coercive approach and needed to be somehow undermined. All indications point to a conclusion that the United States was determined to go forward with sanctions, and was unpleasantly surprised when it suddenly became clear on May 17th that a credible deal had been negotiated. So long as the Brazil/Turkey initiative was given no chance of success, it was encouraged as a way to reinforcing the impression that Iran was not interested in a diplomatic solution, and the political atmosphere would be supportive of moves to tighten anti-Iranian sanctions. When it turned out that the U.S. had guessed wrong, and that the Brazilian/Turkish diplomacy would reach a positive outcome, the American leadership shifted course, and seemed to blame for Brasilia and Ankara for interfering in a policy domain where thy lacked experience and leverage.  The Brazilians gave the lie to this posturing by Washington when Lula released Obama’s letter of April 20, 2010 in which a green light had been given to the Brazil/Turkey diplomatic effort to find a breakthrough that would reduce tensions and calm the region.

Perhaps, the more weighty explanation of the hostile response has to do with the changing cast of players in the geopolitical power game. If this reasoning is correct, then the United States angry response was intended to deliver a public reprimand to Brazil and Turkey, warning them to leave questions pertaining to nuclear weapons in the hands of what Hilary Clinton called ‘the major powers.’ In effect, the non-Western world should have no say in shaping global security policy, and any attempt to do so would be rebuffed in the strongest possible terms. Here, too, it was probably felt that this lesson could be indirectly given through the anticipated Iranian rejection of the proposed new arrangement. When this didn’t transpire, then the United States would have had to cede graciously part of the geopolitical stage, or do what it decided to do, and try to slap down the upstart Brazilians and Turks. Perhaps, it might have accepted the outcome had it not meant also giving up its plan to rely on enhanced sanctions.  

The world of 2010 is very different from what it was in the late 20th century. Globalization, the decline of American power, and the rise of non-Western states have changed the landscape. This process has recently accelerated as a result of the world economic crisis, and the unresolved difficulties in the Euro zone. As the famous Bob Dylan 1960’s song goes, “The times, they are a-changing.” Recall that it was not long ago that the G-8 was scrapped in favor of the more inclusive G-20. Recently, as well, much attention has been given to the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries. What seems most at stake in this attempt to supersede and nullify the Iran deal is banishing the Brazilian and Turkish intruders from the geopolitical playing field. For the West to claim that the Security Council remains remotely representative of the arrangement of power in 2010 is ludicrous. The identity of the five permanent members made some sense in 1945 following World War II, but today it is unquestionably anachronistic due to its failure to take any account of the fundamental shifts in world power that have taken place in recent decades. Brazil and Turkey were recently elected to be non-permanent two-year members of the Security Council, and have justified their selection by pursuing active and independent paths to a more secure and peaceful world. The old guard in world politics should have congratulated the Brazilians and Turks for succeeding where they had failed rather than complaining, and should have settled for defusing tensions rather than seeking their intensification, but this is not the world we are living in.

Further, this is not just a childish ploy by to grab a few headlines and tweak the old guard. The confrontation with Iran is exceedingly dangerous, agitated by Israel’s periodic threats of launching a military attack and reports of pushing hard on the United States behind the scenes to move toward exercising the military option that, in Beltway jargon, has never been taken off the table. This prevailing strategy of tension could easily produce a devastating regional war, disrupting the world economy, and causing widespread human suffering. Both Brazil and Turkey have strong national interests in working for regional peace and security, and one way to do this is to calm the diplomatic waters, especially in relation to Iran’s contested nuclear program. The fact that Iran seems prepared to go ahead with the agreement, at least if the UN refrains from further sanctions, argues for giving the deal a chance to succeed, or at worst, working to make the LEU transfer more reassuring to those countries that suspect Iran of secretly planning to become a nuclear weapons state.

The concern about Iran seems genuine in many quarters, given the inflammatory language sometimes used by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and considering the repressive internal practices in Iran. At the same time, even in this regard the United States leadership has rather dirty hands. While insisting that Iran cannot be allowed to do what several other non-nuclear states have already done in conformity with Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States has acknowledged that it has been engaged in a variety of destabilizing military activities under Pentagon auspices within Iranian territory. (For confirmation see Mark Mazzeti, “U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast,” NY Times, May 24, 2010). Also, it is impossible to overlook the dispiriting silence that has long insulated Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal from scrutiny and censure, as well as the closely related refusal of the Western powers to back proposals put forward by Egypt and others for a nuclear free Middle East.

Back in 2003 Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, made headlines by contrasting ‘Old Europe’ (especially France and Germany) that he denigrated as decadent because it opposed the invasion of Iraq, and ‘New Europe’ that was supposed to be the flourishing wave of the future in Eastern Europe that favored American policy. Now it is Old Europe that is again partnering with the United States, and so restored to the good graces of Washington. In this sense, Brazil and Turkey are being treated as geopolitical trespassers because of their refusal to absent themselves from any further engagement in Middle East diplomacy.

We seem to be witnessing the passing of an era in world politics, which has yet to be acknowledged. It is two decades since Charles Krauthammer, writing in Foreign Affairs, declared that “The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.” The abrupt rejection of the Brazil/Turkey initiative can probably best understood as a nostalgic clinging by Obama’s Washington to the ‘unipolar moment’ long after its reality has passed into history, at lease with respect to nuclear weapons policy, including administering the non-proliferation regime. The U.S. Government has been more flexible in other substantive areas, so far encouraging reliance on the G-20 and treating the BRIC countries as virtual partners in the Copenhagen climate change high-level conference of last December.

Turkey has already demonstrated the enormous gains for itself and the region arising by the pursuit of an independent and activist foreign policy based on resolving conflicts and reducing tensions to the extent possible, with benefits for itself and its neighbors as measured by peace, stability, and prosperity.  Not all of its initiatives have met with success. It tried to encourage the world to treat Hamas as a political actor after it fairly won elections in Gaza back in January 2006, but was rebuffed by Washington and Tel Aviv. Similarly, it brought to bear its mediating skill in trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria, only to have the process break down after a series of promising negotiating rounds. Maybe also the Brazil/Turkey initiative will be effectively beaten down, but it was still definitely worth trying. For the sake of human security such governments should continue trying to supplant war and militarism with diplomacy and cooperative international relations. Outside of Western diplomatic circles it is already widely appreciated that the May 17th agreement showcases the exciting reality of a new geopolitical landscape in which the countries of the global South are now acting as subjects, being no longer content as mere objects in scenarios devised in the North. In the near future it is likely to be widely appreciated that there does exist a ‘real new world order’! At that time, the May 17th initiative might finally come into its own as the day that the North/South divide disappeared with respect to the shaping of global policy and the quest for the peaceful resolution of war-threatening conflicts.