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Learning from the Spies - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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It’s a story similar to a movie: a network of secret agents, with spouses and families with children, integrated into American society with personalities and aliases, in order to learn secrets and penetrate the circles of influence in the interests of Russian intelligence. The FBI monitored them for a long period, and when they sensed they were due to leave, they arrested them. Besides the shock caused by the news of this network’s arrest and the intriguing details about the individuals and their lives, which resembled the atmosphere of the Cold War, (between the superpowers Russia, heiress to the Soviet Union, and the USA), what happened afterwards is even more enthralling than the tale of the spies, who it appears did not succeed in gathering valuable information or penetrating influential circles, and were actually content with life in the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama was aware of news of the network, and the decision of the FBI to arrest them, when he met with Russian President Medvedev before and during the G20 summit in Canada. He held negotiations with the Russian President based around coordinating positions towards global issues ranging from the economy to Iran and nuclear weapons and improving relations. After all that was concluded, the network was exposed and arrested, in order to begin immediate direct negotiations between Moscow and Washington to resolve the case and find a way to save face, without damaging the shared desire from both sides to improve relations.

The initial reaction from Moscow, to deny the charge, quickly disappeared, in order to open a field of quick communication to accelerate the conclusion of the deal which, details later revealed, was a presidential play. It was clear from the beginning that things were heading in this direction by means of the diluted charges that the agents faced: working in the interests of a foreign country without permission.

The result or “happy ending” was that Moscow regained the ten agents who removed a legal obstacle to their deportation by admitting guilt after Moscow persuaded some of them with financial incentives, and guarantees of free housing, in exchange for four who were detained by Russia after being convicted of working for US and Western intelligence. The dossier was closed and the two countries continue to talk about the development of bilateral relations and coordination towards international issues.

There is one lesson to be derived from this case: The way in which wise states act together on sensitive issues, which may affect security, is without emotion or passion. The two sides agreed to avoid the escalation and retaliatory measures which characterized the Cold War when they exchanged evictions. The parties gave preference to their interest in improving relations without letting a side issue affect their strategic goal.

Nothing comes from threats of doom and destruction and the enormity of issues, or from media campaigns irritating public opinion, which may rouse emotions but not in the best interests. Merely, in relation to the spy exchange deal, a cool head was maintained. Moscow accepted to extradite those convicted of spying in order to avoid embarrassment if the detained network went to trial, which, unfortunately for some Americans resulted in the departure of an attractive female spy, who filled the stories and pictures of the tabloids over there. It’s an important lesson in international relations, and how to manage the interests of rational states. Do not let emotions lead and form, in some cases, foreign policy as we see in the Arab region. When we see crises and storms in relations with states, they are fed by media campaigns in the simplest of cases, and harm public interest without any benefit.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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