Will USA-Iran Disaster Diplomacy Have Longevity?
By Dr. Ilan Kelman
Dr. Ilan Kelman is the Deputy Director, Cambridge University UK Centre for Risk In the Built Environment
Comments from the American government on dialogue with Iran are a clear example of Disaster Diplomacy, where a natural disaster has potentially brought enemy states together. Whether or not the earthquake will lead to concrete rapprochement is uncertain, but it is dangerous to assume that it will.
In previous Disaster Diplomacy cases, such as Greece-Turkey after the 1999 earthquakes and India-Pakistan after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, the disaster was a catalyst, not a creator, of diplomacy. For Greece-Turkey, diplomatic initiatives had been in place before the earthquake. For India-Pakistan, a six-month honeymoon ended catastrophically and war nearly occurred later that year, although tentative diplomatic steps have recently been taken--in the absence of any disaster.
Iran-USA has precedents for Disaster Diplomacy: earthquakes in 1990 when a private American relief airplane landed and in July 2002 when Bush stated that "Human suffering knows no political boundaries" and Tehran responded that the aid had "no political character". Neither case appears to have advanced diplomatic efforts.
Therefore, although changes can occur rapidly, caution should be exercised before immediately assuming that Washington and Tehran will patch up their differences and live happily ever after. Furthermore, any earthquake-related diplomatic efforts might be building on recent successes; for example, Iran allowing the UN to inspect its nuclear facilities. Colin Powell's statements could be the public face of previously private discussions.
Instead of pushing for immediate, rushed diplomatic changes resulting from the earthquake, the USA and Iran should perhaps use the situation as an opening; an opportunity to find common ground, to start understanding each other, and to keep dialogue going. Then, without the glare of the media spotlight or the impetus from humanitarian expediency, sensible, well thought-out diplomatic changes could be successfully phased in.
If that does happen, it is sad that it took a disaster to jump-start the diplomacy. We must learn to seek and accept peace before we are forced to do so by a tragedy.