Confusing condominium

A couple of weeks ago, Martin S. Indyk, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and a former US ambassador to Israel*, wrote a two-part series on the future of US relations in the Middle East. The choices, he wrote, came down to “a Joint Condominium with Iran or a Back to the Future approach that relies on traditional US allies.” He favors the “Back to the Future” approach.

David Brooks of The New York Times echoed Indyk, saying, “Instead of a condominium with Iran that offends traditional allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, the US should build a regional strategy around strengthening relations with those historic pillars.”

So, they agree: We should not move into a condo with Iran.

That’s not how they used it, of course. The “condominium” Indyk and Brooks were talking about is “joint rule by two or more states” or the territory being so ruled.

Indyk’s “Joint Condominium” with Iran involved conceding “Iran’s dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.” It is that regional order that would constitute the “condominium.”

Antarctica is effectively a “condominium,” since it is not a sovereign territory (although several nations claim parts of its territory as their own). The Antarctic Treaty provides voting authority to 28 nations to jointly govern the area; all told, 50 countries are part of the “condominium.”

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That international law application of “condominium” dates to 1715, the Oxford English Dictionary says, adding: “Condominium is the subject of various Latin treatises of 17-18th c., chiefly by Germans.” It derives from the modern Latin “dominion,” meaning “lordship.”

The more common use of “condominium” means housing that is individually owned, but jointly governed, usually by a homeowners’ association that is legally incorporated. So it’s not that far from the kind of joint sovereignty discussed by Indyk and Brooks.

The housing use of “condominium” is confined mostly to North America, the OED says, which, says the first use it can find was in 1962, in The Economist. The shortened version “condo” is now recognized as a word of its own in dictionaries, but only for the apartment usage.

Some sources trace the first housing “condominium” to Puerto Rico in 1959, while others say the first was in New York City in 1881. And some say the concept of a condominium goes back to ancient Rome, though some research disproves that, at least as far as the housing condominium is concerned.

Using “condominium” the way Indyk and Brooks did could be confusing to people who think of a “condominium” only as an apartment complex. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find uses of “condominium” in the sovereignty sense outside of those two citations.

Maybe it would be better to be more “cooperative” with readers and avoid “condominium” except when talking about housing.

*The piece has been corrected to reflect that Indyk was ambassador to Israel, not Iran.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.