Jonathan Power: Libya’s Lesson for Iran

By Jonathan Power

It is rapidly becoming a truism that the Middle East problems are so intertwined that they must be all negotiated into tolerance and disarmament at more or less the same time—not sequentially as before.

Still, it is better in an analysis such as this to single out Iran, because if Iran can be got right then a lot of the other dominoes will be easier to fit into place. It is Iran that Israel fears most. It is Iran that has so much influence on Hamas. It is Iran that can contribute significantly to peace in Iraq and Lebanon.

And to discuss Iran we must talk about Libya. Libya only a few years ago had many of the same problems as Iran today. Not only was it on the cusp of producing nuclear weapons—it was a terrorist state writ large. The downing over Lockerbie, Scotland, of a U.S. airliner was only the apogee of a continuous line of terrorist activity over a 30-year period. Yet, by careful diplomacy, its teeth were gradually withdrawn and, in September of last year, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Tripoli, declared that the rapprochement with Libya was ”an historic event.”

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney likes to assert that it was Iraq that did the trick; that Muammar el-Qaddafi finally got scared by American sabre-rattling. ”Five days after we captured Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all his nuclear materials to the United States.” The record suggests otherwise. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage flatly contradicted his boss. Libya’s concessions ”didn’t have anything to do” with Hussein’s capture, he said.

President Ronald Reagan had singularly failed in his coercive diplomacy some two decades earlier. Subsequent presidents tried a milder and, in the end, more successful approach: more carrot than stick. But it took a long time, stretching over three U.S. administrations. They obviously realized that the bombing that Reagan had unleashed, which wounded Qaddafi and killed one of his children, was counterproductive—it led directly to the Lockerbie revenge.

Regime change was replaced by policy change—an important positive influence on Qaddafi and one that the U.S. and Britain kept stressing. It had become clear that Washington’s military tactics only strengthened to Qaddafi’s uncertain political base at home. Moreover, later, there were clear signals by Washington and London that they were not going to push for too much on their Lockerbie compensation demands—there would not be legal action against Libya.

Washington’s less confrontational policy enabled it to win a unanimous UN Security Council vote in favor of tough sanctions in 1992—the first time in the international struggle against terrorism that a broad multilateral coalition had agreed on such. Libya soon began to face severe economic problems, compounded by falling oil prices. To the surprise of many, Qaddafi faced growing Islamist opposition, as his hold on Libya began to deteriorate. This had a big effect, encouraging him to reach out to moderates in both the Middle East and across Europe.

Progress continued. Libya increasingly restrained its bad behavior in its African backyard. In 1999, Libya offered to give up its weapons of mass destruction programs. In 2000, it surrendered the two thugs suspected in the Lockerbie bombing. In March 2003, the Lockerbie legal case was settled with the agreement of a Libyan donation of $2.7 billion to the bereaved families. The trial of the Lockerbie suspects began in a Scottish court a year later. Finally, in October 2003, U.S. and British technical teams were allowed into Libya to inspect weapons’ sites, laboratories, and factories.

On December 19, 2003, just after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi agreed to totally abolish his weapons of mass destruction. But Cheney missed the point entirely.

While one can’t underestimate the impact of America’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, Qaddafi could also see how quickly the Americans might get bogged down both there and in Afghanistan. The sanctions, however, bothered him much more than the diminished threat of bombing or invasion—particularly those restricting the importation of high-tech items necessary for the modernization of Libya’s increasingly run-down oil industry.

While the continuous threat of U.S. force was probably a factor it was not the factor. Active diplomacy (rather than active military pressure) made it possible for Libyans to feel that they were not conceding from a position of weakness; rather they were acting out of self-interest. After all, Qaddafi’s primary concern was to stay in power.

The lesson to be learned regarding Iran is that steady diplomacy and sanctions can win the day, as long as military threats are played down. Moreover, in Iran’s case, it is important to improve the atmosphere that counts for Iranians—by being much tougher on Israel, by pursuing vigorously a two-state solution before it is too late, by encouraging Israel to make peace with Syria, and not resisting Iran’s relationship with the Shi’ites of Iraq.

Only then can the remaining dominoes fall into place.



Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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