ANALYSIS & OPINION: A new approach to Iran

Why containing Iran won’t work: Washington’s flawed new Middle East strategy

The Middle East is a region continuously divided against itself. In the 1960s, radical Arab regimes contested the legitimacy and power of traditional monarchical states. In the 1970s, Islamic fundamentalists rejected the prevailing secular order and sought to set the region on the path to God. In the 1980s, much of the Arab world supported the genocidal Saddam Hussein as he sought to displace Iran’s theocratic regime. Today, the Middle East is fracturing once more, this time along sectarian and confessional lines, with Sunnis clamoring to curb Shiite ascendance. Again and again, in the name of preserving the balance of power, U.S. policy has taken sides in the region’s conflicts, thus exacerbating tensions and widening existing cleavages. Beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States has shown limited interest in mediating conflicts, settling disputes, or bringing antagonists together. Washington sided with the conservative monarchies against Arab socialist republics, acquiesced in the brutal suppression of fundamentalist opposition by secular governments, buttressed Saudi power and the Iraqi war machine to temper Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamist rage. It is now courting Sunni regimes to align against Iran and its resurgent Shiite allies. Every time, as Washington has become mired in the Middle East’s rivalries, its goal of stabilizing the region has slipped further away.

Instead of focusing on restoring a former balance of power, the United States would be wise to aim for regional integration and foster a new framework in which all the relevant powers would have a stake in a stable status quo. The Bush administration is correct to sense that a truculent Iran poses serious challenges to U.S. concerns, but containing Iran through military deployment and antagonistic alliances simply is not a tenable strategy. Iran is not, despite common depictions, a messianic power determined to overturn the regional order in the name of Islamic militancy; it is an unexceptionally opportunistic state seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood. Thus, the task at hand for Washington is to create a situation in which Iran will find benefit in limiting its ambitions and in abiding by international norms.

Dialogue, compromise, and commerce, as difficult as they may be, are convincing means. An acknowledgment by the U.S. government that Tehran does indeed have legitimate interests and concerns in Iraq could get the two governments finally to realize that they have similar objectives: both want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and prevent the civil war there from engulfing the Middle East. Resuming diplomatic and economic relations between Iran and the United States, as well as collaborating on Iraq, could also be the precursor of an eventual arrangement subjecting Iran’s nuclear program to its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If Iran enjoyed favorable security and commercial ties with the United States and was at ease in its region, it might restrain its nuclear ambitions. [complete article]

After the Iran NIE

Since the NIE’s release, Bush has emphasized the passages of the report that continue to sound warning bells. But this effort will be dismissed as—and, in fact, will be—lame propaganda unless he also acknowledges, and embraces, the positive passages.

If Bush wants the rest of the world to acknowledge the caveats, he has to acknowledge—and act on—the main message. In other words, if he wants Russia, China, and the European Union to continue the diplomatic pressure on Iran, he has to offer Iran diplomatic inducements. Pressure may be needed to keep the Iranians from resuming their nuclear-weapons program. But negotiations should be started, as a reward for halting their program—and the prospect of further rewards should be held out if they unwind their program still further.

Bush should have started serious talks with Iran two years ago, for a variety of reasons. The NIE offers two additional, compelling reasons for starting them now. [complete article]

The zero-sum fiasco

Bush’s woefully misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, carried out under false pretences, has not only drained the United States treasury, but reduced Washington’s standing in the Middle East in a way not yet fully grasped by most commentators. Whereas Washington once played off Tehran against Baghdad, while involved in a superpower zero-sum game with the Soviet Union, the Bush administration is now engaged in a zero-sum game, as a virtual equal, with Iran. That is, America’s loss has become Iran’s automatic gain, and vice-versa. [complete article]

A new Chinese red line over Iran

The highly respected former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans has assessed after a recent visit to Tehran and meetings with top Iranian officials that the outlines of a deal are emerging and the NIE “gives us the chance to break out of this impasse [of Iran insisting on its right to enrich]”. He suggested that the “red line” should no longer be the issue of enrichment, but could be between the “civilian and military capability” of NPT signatories, and if such a new red line would hold, “it would not matter whether Iran was capable of producing its own nuclear fuel”.

Evans added, “That [red] line will hold if we can get Iran to accept a highly intrusive monitoring, verification and inspection regime” with additional safeguards, and if Iran could be persuaded to “stretch out over time the development of its enrichment capability and to have any industrial-scale activity conducted not by Iran but by an international consortium”.

Evan assesses that Iran is “capable of being persuaded” if incentives include the lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations with the US. Evans concluded: “This is a country seething with both national pride and resentment against past humiliations, and it wants to cut a regional and global figure by proving its sophisticated technological capability. One only wishes that something less sensitive than the nuclear fuel cycle had been chosen to make that point.” [complete article]

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