In the wake of two violent world wars, the United Nations was established with the ambitious goal of sustaining peace. Though we can cynically point out the numerous conflicts that have plagued the world since the body’s inception, we must also remember that true peace is not an endpoint. Rather, it is a process and a way of thinking, one which shapes how we see and interact with the world around us. Central to this process is diplomacy, the determination to resolve complex issues through dialogue, rather than battle. The Biden administration now has the opportunity to re-engage with the US diplomatic process – beginning with Iran.
One of the best contemporary examples of diplomacy’s strength is the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. Despite decades of mutual enmity and grievances, the United States and Iran joined with the international community to address an issue of global security: nuclear non-proliferation. The JCPOA represents precisely the kind of diplomacy needed to facilitate goodwill and avoid conflict.
As the most powerful country in the world, the United States plays a central role in the commitment to peace.
But the Iran deal also raises the specter of America’s unilateral power. As the most powerful country in the world, the United States plays a central role in the commitment to peace. Unfortunately, US foreign policy over the last several decades has often instigated the very conflicts the international community aspires to prevent. Under the Bush administration, officials presented fabricated intelligence to justify the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq on the global stage. By manipulating the United Nations, the Bush administration carried out an unprovoked war under the guise of internationalism, thus subverting the very purpose of the institution. And though President Barack Obama broke with past US convention on Iran to negotiate the nuclear deal, the embrace of drone wars under his administration raised moral and legal questions, while revealing the continuity of militarism in US foreign policy.
Under the Trump administration, the US lifted the façade of international collaboration all together, flexing its economic dominance and boasting its military strength under the banner of “America First.” The Trump administration’s complete disregard for global cooperation was evident in its rhetoric, as well as its decisions to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, withdraw from the World Health Organization, and sanction the International Criminal Court. But President Donald Trump’s decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal, an arduously negotiated diplomatic breakthrough that took years of global mediation, best exemplified his administration’s contempt for international compromise.
Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” policy on Iran achieved none of its policy objectives, damaged the reputation of the US, hurt millions of ordinary Iranians with brutal sanctions, and almost sparked another disastrous war. Following Trump’s resounding defeat in the 2020 US presidential election, there is some room for hope. The new Biden administration has signaled its desire to return to diplomacy with Iran and the strongest indication is Biden’s appointment of Rob Malley, who helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as his Iran envoy.
Reassembling the team that brokered the original deal certainly shows Biden’s hopes to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran diplomatically, avoiding confrontation and restoring some confidence that the US can be a trusted actor in world affairs. That the international community, including Iran, maintained the framework of the deal in spite of the Trump administration’s sabotage attempts is a testament to the importance of an existing philosophy of internationalism. In preserving the framework of a diplomatic deal and averting war, Iran and other members of the international community fulfilled the lofty promises of the UN’s raison d’être.
Diplomacy matters because it is critical to achieving the lasting peace that the vast majority of humanity longs for. The road toward a real and lasting peace will be long. It will require the conviction of many and the US will have to play an integral role. But in order to achieve peace, our outlook and our actions must fundamentally change. Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would represent a step in the right direction, but it should only be a starting point.
There is no question of the might of the United States. The US is not only the most powerful country in the world, but also, with its ability to extend its reach to every part of the globe, is arguably the most formidable entity in human history. This is not an exaggeration or bravado, it is a truth that we must reckon with, especially as Americans. It is quite unlikely that the Biden administration will become the revolutionary force that profoundly alters the ethos of militarism that has defined US foreign policy for so long. However, it may serve as a step in the right direction that—with many more steps to follow—can put us on a path to that attainable, though complicated, aspiration to save future generations from the inhumanity of war.
Assal Rad is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her PhD in history at the University of California, Irvine.