In interviews before and after his election as US President, Barrack Obama signalled his intention of taking a vigorous new, diplomatic approach to Iran where his predecessor President Bush had engaged in confrontation
Iran has a nuclear-fuel enrichment programme which the United States under President Bush has seen as intended for nuclear weapons development (International Herald Tribune, October 17, 2007)
The Bush administration also saw Iran as arming and supporting anti-US militia in neighbouring Iraq.
The new president’s desire for dialogue represents for Iran an opportunity to an end the United States-driven United Nations Security Council trade sanctions placed on it in 2006 and intensified in 2007 (refer to Global Policy Forum for details)
Currently Iran is economically hard-pressed as the huge fall in oil revenues, which are the mainstay of its economy, has been compounded by the severe effects of the current world recession (Obama’s Overture Leaves Iranians Uneasy, The New York Times, February 4, 2009)
At this point, the parties are coy about making direct, full-on contact. One physical obstacle is that the United States does not have an embassy in Iran. However, New Zealand does have an embassy in Iran – and it has since 1975. There is also an Iranian embassy in Wellington.
The United States is considering setting up a low-level government office in Iran to begin to build similarly low-level communication. ( Obama Team Looks for Opening in Iran). In other words, the United States is taking a softly, softly approach.
If New Zealand has not already begun to do so, this is where it could begin to sensitively test out the situation as to whether there is a gap for a role as a quiet catalyst to start connecting with both parties with a view to helping to build bridges between them.
Perhaps New Zealand officials could also consult and work with the Swiss, who have previously been chosen to liaise between Iran and the United States over compensation for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner on its way to Mecca in 1988 during the US Reagan administration. (I was told of that Swiss liaison work by the Swiss official concerned when he was, subsequently, stationed in Wellington).
Such an exercise in diplomatic liaison could provide an important opportunity to build up good connections with the new US administration, including with both Barrack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as their Middle East diplomatic team. It would also be an opportunity to learn much from some very important and intensive Middle East peace diplomacy that is about to be attempted.
There is an excellent precedent for New Zealand acting in this way, including where nuclear issues were at stake. Murray McCully’s predecessor, Winston Peters, played a key role in helping to open up nuclear-free
dialogue between the United States and North Korea where the latter also had a nuclear-enrichment programme.
Taking up such opportunities to offer diplomatic brokering services is one of the very best ways for New Zealand, as a small and remote country, to become a relatively significant international player rather than an irrelevant or vulnerable backwater.
I also wonder if there might be some Iranians in New Zealand who have some good connections and/or some useful knowledge or ideas to contribute? It could be very useful to be able to tap into diasporic networks here, such as was done to good effect when our peacekeepers went to Afghanistan.
Any comments welcome. For instance, how do you think New Zealand, as a small and remote, multicultural country, can enhance its influence in the wider world?