News Journal: Sometimes, diplomacy actually does work

The United States is the most powerful military and economic power in the history of the world. When it comes to foreign policy these days that sometimes seems to create more problems than it solves.

Our military performed very well in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it became increasingly obvious that our presence in both countries was counterproductive. We clearly leave behind political and economic basket cases.

The wheels are coming off the Arab Spring move to democracy. We are forced to stand by and watch a civil war in Syria, unwilling to side with a fractured opposition that could easily be taken over by anti-American elements. Our drone program has successfully decimated al-Qaida’s leadership, but it has also created new enemies in the Middle East.

Diplomatically, we have watched China and then Russia make us look like fools over the Snowden circus. And we are the piñata of choice in a number of South American countries.

I don’t envy Secretary of State Kerry or President Obama, who are constantly being second-guessed by people who seem unwilling to face the fact that there are limits to what unilateral American power can do in the modern world. The truth is that usually the best way for us to advance our national interests, and the cause of world peace and economic stability, is to work with international organizations and area-specific alliances such as NATO.

That is why developments in Iran, of all places, are looking promising.

Back in the 1980s, working for then Sen. Biden on the Foreign Relations Committee, I was involved in fashioning economic sanctions against South Africa. When I hear people say “economic sanctions don’t work” I know better. They worked in South Africa and brought down apartheid.

Three years ago, when I sat on the same committee, I was briefed a number of times by the Treasury Department on their incredibly complex and comprehensive efforts to use economic sanctions to stop Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb. They tracked down in great detail all the ways money moved in and out of Iran and came up with programs that constricted that flow.

Most importantly, they and the State Department did the hard diplomatic work necessary to get other countries on board. Russia and China were publicly critical of unilateral sanctions, but they were persuaded to sign on for what became four rounds of U.N. sanctions. Even though those two countries refused to approve further sanctions, our European allies agreed with us on some very tough new regulations that included an embargo on Iranian oil and extensive restrictions on Iran’s Central Bank.

How do we know our efforts have succeeded? The numbers don’t lie. The World Bank recently announced that Iran was six months behind on its payments and their loans were being placed in a non-performing status. Iran owes the World Bank $607 million and $79 million is overdue. Inflation in Iran is more that 35 percent, and its currency has lost half of its value. The unemployment rate sits at 12.2 percent, with youth unemployment at 28.3 percent. Oil income has plummeted from 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to 1.25 billion barrels today. Exports in May were down to 700,000 barrels a day.

The most recent indication that Iranians are looking for a way out of their country’s economic stagnation was the election of President Hasan Rouhani, a relative moderate who won with 50.7 percent of the vote over five very conservative opponents. In his inaugural address, Rouhani pledged to ease the daily hardship of Iranians by removing the economic sanctions.

That doesn’t mean we should be wildly optimistic about resolving the Iranian nuclear question. President Rouhani needs the support of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in anything he does. But there are some good signs. The Financial Times recently reported that Khamenei is “throwing his weight behind the mild-mannered cleric’s more moderate foreign policy.”

We’ll see. Some kind of direct negotiations with Iran seem more and more likely. In the meanwhile, we must hold the line on economic sanctions that have obviously had a profound effect. Because of them, we are much closer to achieving our goal –getting Iran to abandon its aspirations for a nuclear bomb.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware.