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Libya's lesson for Iran



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 27, 2009

LONDON - It is rapidly becoming a truism that all 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 much influence on Hamas. It is Iran that can contribute significantly to peace in Iraq and the Lebanon.

And to discuss Iran we must talk about Libya. Libya only a few years ago had many of the same problems as Iran tod ay. 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 period. Yet by careful diplomacy its teeth were gradually drawn and in September last year the 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 it; 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 U.S..” The record suggests otherwise. 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. 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 tha t the bombing that Reagan unleashed, that 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 militant tactics by Washington added strength to Qaddafi's uncertain political base at home. Moreover, later there 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 favour 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, Qadaffi faced growing Islamist opposition, as his hold on Libya deteriorated. This had a big effect on him, encouraging to reach out to moderates in both the Middle East and Europe.

Progress continued. Libya increasingly restrained its bad behaviour in its African backyard. In 1999 Libya offered t o give up its weapons of mass destruction programmes. In 2000 it surrendered the two thugs suspected in the Lockerbie bombing. In March 2003 the Lockerbie legal case was settled with 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. Also in October, 2003, U.S. and British technical teams were allowed into Libya to inspect weapons' sites, laboratories and factories.

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

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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 had got bogged down both there and in Afghanistan. The sanctions bothered him much more, particularly the high tech ones, necessary for the modernization of its 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 activating 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. After20all a primary concern of Qaddafi was to stay in power.

The lesson to be learnt for 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, 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.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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