In Defense of Diplomacy

New legislation would make all diplomatic contact with Iran illegal. Stephen Zunes explains why we need to keep the lines of communication open.
us congress building by jessie owen

Photo by Jessie Owen

Though most of our history books, as well as contemporary journalism, tend to focus on violence between peoples and nations, the vast majority of conflicts have been settled peacefully.  For centuries, it has been forbidden to “kill the messenger,” thereby enabling diplomacy between governments. Even in cases where countries have not had formal diplomatic relations, quiet negotiations – often initially clandestine and between low-level officials – have prevented cold conflicts from becoming hot ones.  Even war itself has generally not prevented ongoing diplomatic contact, which has often prevented escalation, limited civilian casualties, and made possible a speedier end to the conflict.

With the advent of air travel and instantaneous long-distance communication, the ease with which representatives of adversarial governments can meet has made diplomatic contact more timely and frequent. Meanwhile, advances in the study of negotiation and conflict resolution has made it more effective. Indeed, the improved quantity and quality of diplomatic contact has been a major factor in the dramatic reduction in inter-state wars over the past sixty years.

History has shown that governments that refuse to even talk with each other are far more likely to go to war.

Unfortunately, Congress is taking up dangerous legislation which appears to be designed to make the risk of war more likely. The bill takes the unprecedented step of effectively preventing any kind of U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran. The Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011 (H.R. 1905), sponsored by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the right-wing chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is a far-reaching sanctions bill which contains a provision (Section 601, subsection (c)) which would put into law a restriction whereby

"No person employed with the United States Government may contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that. . . is an agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the Government of Iran;"

Never in the history of this country has Congress ever restricted the right of the White House or State Department to meet with representatives of a foreign state, even in wartime.

Despite not having formal diplomatic ties since 1979, there has been frequent low-level contact between the two governments on such issues as combating drug smuggling and Salafi terrorists. Recent examples include talks which facilitated cooperation in suppressing the Taliban and freeing three American hikers held in an Iranian prison. Such contacts would no longer be possible under this bill.

More seriously, the legislation appears to be designed to push the country toward a military conflict with Iran. History has shown that governments that refuse to even talk with each other are far more likely to go to war.

If this measure passes, it will establish a dangerous precedent whereby Congress would likely follow with similar legislation effectively forbidding any contact with Palestinians, Cubans and others.

The bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week and, with 352 co-sponsors from both parties, is almost certain to pass the House of Representatives as a whole.

As is often the case with legislation dealing with foreign affairs that puts limits on executive behavior, there is clause allowing for a presidential waiver. It is very limited, however, allowing the White House to waive the requirement only

". . . if the president determines and so reports to the appropriate congressional committees 15 days prior to the exercise of waiver authority that failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States."

The problem is that diplomatic encounters — particularly with countries with which the United States has tense relations — often need to be arranged in less than a 15-day period. The entire Cuban missile crisis lasted only 13 days, for example. In the event of a crisis that threatens a military confrontation between the United States and Iran, the Obama administration would have to wait more than two weeks before having any contact with any Iranian officials, which by then could be too late.  Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. military is in the process of taking steps to establish a direct hot line to Iran in order to communicate should there be an incident especially in the Persian Gulf between U.S. and Iranian ships, an initiative which would be outlawed under the current bill.

Another problem is that meetings with governments with which the United States has no diplomatic relations are usually arranged secretly through back channels. Reporting a planned meeting to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, as required in this legislation, runs the risk that at least one of its 46 members would leak the news to the press. The relatively moderate elements within Iran's factious regime would presumably not want to risk any meetings with Americans becoming known to hard-liners and would be forced to cancel such a meeting.

Another problematic clause in the bill, contained in the same sub-section, states that

"No person employed with the United States Government may contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that... presents a threat to the United States or is affiliated with terrorist organizations."

Not only could what constitutes a "threat" to the United States or an "affiliate" with a "terrorist organization" be interpreted rather broadly, it could restrict investigation of possible terrorist attacks. It would have made illegal the recent sting operation that foiled the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador, for example.

The march to war with Iran appears to have the support a sizable number of liberal Democrats. Indeed, more than 40 members of the so-called "Progressive Caucus" have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including: Karen Bass, Robert Brady, Corrine Brown, Yvette Clark, William Clay, Emmanuel Cleaver, David Cicilline, Steve Cohen, Elijah Cummings, Peter DeFazio, Rosa DeLauro, Sam Farr, Chaka Fattah, Bob Filner, Barney Frank, Janice Hahn, Mazie Hirono, Michael Honda, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Hank Johnson, Marcy Kaptur, John Lewis, David Loebsack, Ben Ray Lujan, Carolyn Maloney, Ed Markey, Jerrold Nadler, Frank Pallone, Jared Polis, Charles Rangel, Laura Richardson, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Linda Sanchez, Jan Schakowsky, Louise Slaughter, Peter Welch, and Frederica Wilson.

"This legislation is another illustration of the tendency to think of diplomacy as some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side."

Fortunately, there has been a growing chorus of opposition, ranging from peace activists to veteran diplomats and intelligence officials.

For example, CIA analyst and Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar has criticized the bill, noting, "This legislation is another illustration of the tendency to think of diplomacy as some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side."

Similarly, veteran diplomats Thomas Pickering and William Luers observed, "Besides raising serious constitutional issues over the separation of powers, this preposterous law would make it illegal for the U.S. to know its enemy," a principle which has been understood by strategic planners since first articulated by Sun Tzu in The Art of War in the 6th century B.C.

Though right-wing Zionist groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have been lobbying in support, more moderate Zionist groups – like Americans for Peace Now – have come out against it, condemning the “outrageous nature” of the provision and noting “There are echoes here of the spectacularly self-defeating foreign policy approach of President George W. Bush, whose administration adopted the view that U.S. diplomatic engagement is a reward for good behavior, rather than a tool critical to protecting and promoting U.S. interests.”

Most importantly, the American people are on the side of diplomacy. A CBS poll found that only 15 percent believe that Iran as a threat that requires military action, while 55 percent of Americans think Iran can be effectively dealt with through diplomacy instead.

It is up to the people, then, to make sure that this dangerous legislation does not become law.


  • Here’s evidence that nonviolence is the most powerful tool to promote democracy and overthrow tyranny.

  • It’s time to leave behind old ideas of superpowers. A changing world brings new opportunities for peace and the chance to join a community of nations.

  • Arash Shiva's beautiful photographs of daily life in Iran.


No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.