January 19, 2008

Turning a page in Tehran

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on January 19, 2008.

Everybody knows that the Middle East is a problem for the United States. Quite apart from its many troubles with the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa, the US faces greater difficulties in the critical nations occupying the populous swath of land between Europe and India. They include two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the US is embroiled in military conflict; another, Iran, with which it has no diplomatic relations; and two nominal allies, Pakistan and Turkey, in which the US remains dismally unpopular.

This picture, grim as it is from Washington’s perspective, should be provoking some creative thinking about America’s overarching policy in the region. But there are very few indications that Bush or any of his potential successors as president have any such plan in the offing.

There have been some significant regional developments in recent months. US relations with Turkey have rebounded, at least temporarily, after Turkish strikes on Kurdish separatists in December. Pakistan’s political instability, on the other hand, is being viewed with increasing concern in Washington. Next month’s elections appear unlikely to alleviate the political imbroglio in Islamabad, much less the deeper extremist threats on its western frontier. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced it would send an extra 3,200 marines to Afghanistan to counter an expected Taliban spring offensive and train Afghan soldiers, showing a renewed focus on that front of the so-called War on Terror.

The crux of American policy in the broader Middle East, however, is Iran. The White House sees Iran as the main regional destabilising force in the Middle East, responsible for violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon and support for Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as a potentially significant nuclear threat. While American-led pressure on Iran to cut back on its nuclear programme has reduced somewhat following the release of a controversial National Intelligence Estimate late last year, the Bush administration remains adamant that isolating and containing Iran should be at the centre of its broader Middle East strategy.

To this end, the US has designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as proliferators of WMDs and the al-Quds army as a supporter of terrorism. The US military also maintains a significant naval presence in the Persian Gulf. But perhaps most peculiarly, Washington has promoted an aggressive new Middle East peace initiative, which the Bush administration seems to think will help diminish Iranian power in the region. Bush’s hasty push for a solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute in recent months is widely interpreted as an attempt to unite Israel and the Sunni Arab states against Iran, a common enemy. On his recent trip to the region, Bush made further attempts to rally its nations, despite their many differences, around the common threat emanating from Tehran, reiterating his description of Iran as the world’s “leading state sponsor of terror”.

But this strategy seems doomed to fail, for no other reason than because the time frame is terribly unrealistic. The Bush administration can scarcely hope to solve a 60-year-old conflict in less than 12 months, let alone with two political leaders — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — who face significant opposition from many of their constituents. Even if a rapid solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict were ironed out this year, peace would be tenuous, and there would be no guarantee that the Arab states would immediately refocus their energies on countering Iran militarily, in conjunction with Israel. Moreover, as Shibley Telhami wrote in the Washington Post this week, the Arab states have very different concerns about Iran than the US and Israel. While the US and Israel are wary of the military potential of Iran and its proxies, the Sunni Arab states are more worried about Iran’s soft power, including the influence it may exercise over their own Shiite minorities. There is also no guarantee that the Arab states will act uniformly against Iran. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has much warmer relations with Iran than Saudi Arabia.

Recently, two of the most notable Iran experts in the US, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, published an article in Foreign Affairs, advocating renewed American engagement with Iran. They argued, among other things, that the US and Iran have many shared objectives in Iraq, and that the US remains the only country able to militarily balance Iran in the region since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “Containing Iran today would mean promoting Sunni extremism — a self-defeating proposition for Washington,” they noted. The only solution to dealing with a belligerent Iran under these untoward circumstances, they concluded, was engagement: “If Iran enjoyed favourable security and commercial ties with the US and was at ease in its region, it might restrain its nuclear ambitions.”

Nasr and Takeyh, both Iranian-Americans, are reportedly advising Hillary Clinton in her presidential bid. It is therefore surprising that the boldest statements about Iran on the campaign trail are emanating not from Clinton, but from her rival Barack Obama. Obama said in an interview in October that he would engage in “aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran, although he has tempered this sentiment at other venues.

Last week Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that he would be willing to support renewed diplomatic relations with the US. “I would be the first one to support these relations,” he said. “We never said the severed relations were forever.” He added, though, that now was not the time for a reconciliation as it would make Iran more vulnerable to American espionage. Yet his statement is a clear indication that the Iranians are willing to engage the US and turn a page on a quarter century of mutual hostility.