Over the weekend, a half-dozen foreign ministers or near equivalents who, between them, represented all of the most important of their kind in the world, came agonizingly close to rewriting the international map.
In diplomacy and in global power politics though, coming close doesn’t earn anyone a Nobel Peace Prize or make the world any safer a place.
Instead, a near miss is very likely to make everything a great deal worse.
The squandered opportunity is, of course, the weekend meeting in Geneva of foreign ministers or top-level officials from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, together with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
They came so close to success that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a hurried flight to Geneva to take part in what seemed an imminent agreement for Iran to significantly slow down its nuclear program in exchange for a partial lifting of the international sanctions that are doing such damage to the Iranian economy.
It must be stressed that even at its best this proposal was only a partial and a temporary solution.
On the one hand, Iran would scale back activity at a new heavy-water nuclear plant now nearing completion. The plant’s goal, supposedly, is to produce isotopes for medical and agricultural research, though it could also produce plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, the cutbacks in sanctions would be limited in scope and, although renewable, would be enacted initially for only six months.
What has been lost is the first-ever agreement after 18 years of angry meetings between Iran and the international group. Lost also is the mood of wary, skeptical trust built up between the two sides by the so-called “charm offensive” of Iran’s newly elected President Hassan Rouhani.
All of this is not necessarily lost entirely, though. The group will reassemble in Geneva on Nov. 20. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said a possible deal still exists, although he admitted that achieving it will now be “formidably difficult.”
If anything, that analysis is too optimistic.
Over the weekend, Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a signal victory by convincing one member of the sanctions group — France — to oppose any deal that did not compel Iran to immediately cut back projects that might produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
And a second victory is within Netanyahu’s reach. The U.S. Congress, as ever overwhelmingly pro-Israel, is now debating bills to impose additional sanctions on Iran.
Ahead is the clear likelihood of a humiliating setback for President Barack Obama (likewise his Secretary of State).
The wider prospects are even more depressing. Failure in the talks between Iran and the sanctions group will almost certainly be followed by a collapse of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, these having been initiated by Kerry and already threatened by the building of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
As imperiled will be the attempt (again by Kerry) to start talks between Syria and countries both outside and inside the Middle East that might just lead on to some kind of political settlement of Syria’s brutal civil war between President Bashar Assad and the rebels, many of them al Qaida jihadists.
Potentially most destructive of all, an Iran humiliated by rejection at Geneva would do nothing — rather would do the exact opposite — to limit the ever-expanding conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims that now threatens to turn the entire Middle East into a gigantic, religious civil war.
Still, failure is not yet certain. The scale of the consequences may compel both sides to revert to Winston Churchill's famous dictum that it is “better to jaw, jaw, jaw, than to war, war, war.”
It would help even more if somewhere, on one side or other, there was someone with the capacity for vision of a Churchill.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears every
other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org