Saturday, November 18, 2006

What do we do with Iran?

Kash Kheirkhah

Of all the analyses I have heard, seen or read recently, "What do we do with Iran" by Former US secretary of State Henry Kissinger--the architect of the US foreign policy during the cold war-- strikes me as one of the most rational ones as he fully examines the pros and cons of what he calls the increasing fashionable term, "negotiations with Tehran":

The argument has become widespread that Iran (and Syria) should be drawn into a negotiating process, hopefully to bring about a change of their attitudes as happened, for example, in the opening to China a generation ago. This, it is said, will facilitate a retreat by the US to more strategically sustainable positions. A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is clearly a contradiction in terms. But the argument on behalf of negotiating too often focuses on the opening of talks rather than their substance. The fact of talks is assumed to represent a psychological breakthrough. The relief supplied by a change of atmosphere is bound to be temporary, however. Diplomacy — especially with an adversary — can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests. Failing that, it runs the risks of turning into an alibi for procrastination or a palliative to ease the process of defeat without, however, eliminating the consequences of defeat.
Now let’s see if talks with Iran can bring about the balance of interests Kissinger rightly refers to. The US interests in the Middle East can be categorized into three major categories: Prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, fighting Islamic terrorism, and defending Israel's security.

On the other side of the spectrum lie Iran's interests which include: developing nuclear weapons, spreading Islamic fundamentalism and threatening Israel by training and funding terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Could there ever be a balance of interests between these two countries considering their current political pursuits? Of course not. But why does Iran pursue goals that put it at odds with the free world led by the United States?

Before getting excited about the prospects of talks with Iran and making comparisons with the US approach toward China more than three decades ago, we should understand the nature of Iran's ruling establishment and the way it views the world as Mr Kissinger mentions.

There exist two schools of thoughts in Iran, one led by figures like Hashemi Rafsanjani and former president Mohammad Khatami--which argue that Iran needs either nuclear weapons or "security guarantees" from the United States to ensure its survival. Such "guarantees" can even lead to Iran resuming diplomatic relations with the US in the not too distant future and will make Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons unnecessary. This school of thought has now being completely marginalized by Iran's supreme leader and his revolutionary guard puppets-- including the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-- who now form the most powerful political elite in Iran.

In the view of this latter group, Iran should not only develop nuclear weapons as a deterrence against any prospective US regime change or military plans, but should also export the Islamic revolution, a cause crystallized by former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and sanctified by his die-hard followers ever since. This school of thought, who is now in charge of all major decision-making bodies in Iran, takes it upon itself to spread the causes of its revolution by help growing Shiite Islamic fundamentalism to set the stage ready for the appearance of its twelfth Imam and assist terror organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas to first derail the peace process and eventually eradicate Israel.

It is this school of thought that the US would have to sit down and talk with and it is this school of though which would turn the negotiations into a long-drawn-out process to buy time for its nuclear ambitions as it did with the Europeans. On the other hand, US disastrous post-war moves in Iraq and Israel's incompetent handling of Hezbollah this past summer followed by its wrong strategy in dealing with Hamas in Gaza--which has led to the killings of innocent Palestinians in recent days--have allowed the terrorist threats by Iran and its terror proxies to fully metastasize in the region. Now why would the Iranian leaders ever want to help pacify Iraq for the US? To help push Iran's nuclear crisis to the top of US agenda, thus creating a serious headache for themselves?

As Mr Kissinger rightly argues "so long as Iran views itself as a crusade rather than a nation, a common interest will not emerge from negotiations. To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for US diplomacy. Iran may come to understand sooner or later that it is still a poor country not in a position to challenge the entire world order. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating programme by the US and its associates."

I would personally not be against talks with Iran if such a strategy could help stop this bloodshed in Iraq and even benefit my compatriots who are suffering under mullahs in the long run. But talks with current Iranian leaders in their present mood will not achieve those goals.

The united States instead should focus on a comprehensive strategy which will pursue diplomatic goals on different fronts in the Middle East simultaneously. Mr Kissinger again puts it best:

In such a policy, Iran must find a respected, but not dominant, place. A restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role in that design, which presupposes close cooperation among the US,Europe and the moderate Arab states. We must not flinch from this underlying reality. Iran needs to be encouraged to act as a nation, not a cause. It has no incentive to appear as a deus ex machina to enable America to escape its embarrassments, unless the US retains an ability to fill the vacuum or at least be a factor in filling it...A purposeful and creative diplomacy towards Iran is important for building a more promising region — but only if Iran does not, in the process, come to believe that it is able to shape the future on its own or if the potential building blocks of a new order disintegrate while America sorts out its purposes.
Update 1: NY Times-Envisioning U.S. Talks With Iran and Syria: “The main concern for Iran is that it does not want to change the current power structure in the country,” said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a political analyst in Tehran. “It will resist any change.” “The U.S. and Iran are pursuing different policies in the region,” Mr. Zeidabadi said. “They might have some common interests. But what is obvious is that Iran considers its survival in spreading a kind of radical ideological Islam in the region which the U.S. says is its enemy.”

Update 2- Kissinger on BBC Television:"I believe America has to be in some dialogue with Iran," Kissinger said."It seems to me the fundamental problem is this: does Iran conduct itself as a crusade or as a nation?"If Iran is a nation it should be possible to define a relationship in which Iran, together with all interested parties, contributes to stability in the region and plays a respected role."If Iran is a crusade that is trying to overthrow the international system as we know it, which is the way the Iranian president talks, then it will be extremely difficult to come to a negotiated solution and then down the road some sort of confrontation will occur."

Update 3: Washington Post- Embittered insiders turn against Bush-Heading into the final chapter of his presidency, fresh from the sting of a midterm election defeat, Bush finds himself with fewer and fewer friends. Some of the strongest supporters of the war have grown disenchanted, former insiders are registering public dissent and Republicans on Capitol Hill blame him for losing Congress.

Update 4: Newsweek- Talking with the enemy: Iran is now raising that price—dramatically. Tehran knows that George W. Bush faces new political pressure from an incoming Democratic Congress to withdraw from Iraq sooner rather than later. Tehran also hears, through the media, that the forthcoming report by the Iraq Study Group (co-chaired by Baker and Lee Hamilton) is expected to recommend fuller engagement with Iran and Syria

Update 5: The Economist (Via Irvaj)- Reaching Out to Iran and Syria: Before those sorts of talks, however, America needs a clear idea about what it is actually willing to trade. Let Iran go nuclear in return for some help on the margin in Iraq? Hand Lebanon back to Mr Assad in order to split Syria from Iran? Surely not. It is good to talk, but expecting too much from Iran and Syria would be a mistake. The place to resolve America's problems in Iraq is still, unfortunately, Iraq itself.