Engage Iran? First, Think It Through

A war of aggression, containment, and a “Nixon-to-China” gamble have all been proposed as strategies for dealing with Iran; all fall short. The best hope is “quiet engagement,” a slow, incremental process out of the headlines that will require the U.S. to think through what it is willing to offer and what it wants in return.

A headline trip to Iran is likely to backfire because, unlike China (deeply worried about a perceived Soviet threat), Iran remains unpersuaded that it should risk trying to work with the historically untrustworthy American superpower. “Containment” is also inappropriate for Iran. The idea of containment is to wall in a monster too big to kill safely but too harmful to live with. One could argue for ”containment” of Goldman Sachs (destroying it outright would endanger the economy; leaving it to continue its unregulated rampage sets the world up for another unnecessary recession). One could argue for “containment” of the U.S. (too powerful to eliminate but too irresponsible in its post-9/11 militancy to live with). But the idea of “containment” of Iran, which is struggling to emerge from the 19th century, only encourages Ahmadinejad’s grandiose self-image and pushes the U.S. further into the trap of feeding Israeli militancy.

Israeli Brigadier-General Uzi Eilam recently exposed the hypocricy of the Israeli right wing hysteria on Iran:

Eilam, who is thought to be updated by former colleagues on developments in Iran, calls his country’s official view hysterical. “The intelligence community are spreading frightening voices about Iran,” he said.

He suggested that the “defence establishment is sending out false alarms in order to grab a bigger budget” while some politicians have used Iran to divert attention away from problems at home.

“Those who say that Iran will obtain a bomb within a year’s time, on what basis did they say so?” he asked. “Where is the evidence?”

The proper analogy for Iran is “engagement,” not a headline-seeking, all-your-eggs-in-one-basket gamble, but quiet talks to find a positive-sum deal. It may not work, but a sincere attempt would take some of the air out of the tires of the bandwagon of Ahmadinejad and his Iranian neo-cons (the belligerent post-Iraq-Iran War super-patriots in the IRGC) and others who use foreign threats to justify the curtailing of civil liberties.

Then again, a sincere policy of engagement might work. We won’t know if we don’t try.

But “engagement” does not mean condescending to talk and expecting Iranians to rush hither on bended knee bearing gifts. “Engagement” means accepting the concept of a positive-sum outcome and coordinating with Iran to define what that means.

Before Washington is ever likely to design a serious “engagement” policy, a debate in the U.S. about the reasonable parameters of such a policy seems an essential process of educating ourselves by thinking through the details of how to (gasp!) redesign the Mideast.

Today, there are several options on the diplomatic table for redesigning the Mideast – al Qua’ida wants civilizational war, Israel wants to eliminate all opposition to its dominance, Erdogan wants good-neighborliness and cooperation. The U.S., with its neo-cons still advocating the failed option of total control, is…ahhh…confused. Violence against Muslim adversaries is producing no victory, solving no problem, and bringing no security. Yet Washington seems unable to come up with a better vision than more of the same, expecting that magically the next time the result will be different.

Indeed, “redesign” of the Mideast is already occurring, though it is not clear that anyone is in charge. Reacting to the Israeli addiction to military solutions and the lack of creativity from Washington, Turkey is moving to offer a regional alternative based on cooperation, with the global natural gas market as the temptation for all prospective partners. This vision is attracting Syria and the new “national reconciliation-light” regime of Lebanon. Iran remains officially uncommitted, but none-too-subtle Iranian media criticism of Ahmadinejad’s economic record suggests that economics may, for some factions, speak louder than diplomatic bombast. The logic of appealling to the highly acquisitive side of the IRGC, which dominates Iranian foreign trade, further suggests that, all else being equal, Iran might be persuaded to moderate its hardline foreign policy stance in return for participating in regional economic integration.

All else is currently not equal, of course. Iran is under the threat of nuclear attack, which is a powerful incentive for it to play the highly provocative “nuclear ambiguity card.” No one knows who in Tehran may want the bomb, but in a situation where Iran is being threatened and pressured by nuclear powers, Tehran’s price for total transparency will surely be high.

Washington should prepare itself for substantive concessions:

  1. What moves could Washington reasonably make to reassure Iran that complete nuclear transparency would leave it more, rather than less secure?
  2. What moves could Washington reasonably make to reassure Iran that it would be allowed to participate as an equal in regional policy-making?
  3. What moves could Washington reasonably make to address the concerns of Palestinian, Yemeni, and Lebanese dissidents marginalized by the current political system so as to minimize the temptation for Iran to counsel and facilitate their violent resistance?

Washington should also define a reasonable list of requests:

  1. The neo-con war policy has ensured profound Iranian involvement in Iraq for the foreseeable future. How might Iranian involvement in Iraq be channeled in ways that would be easy for Washington to live with?
  2. How might Iran assist in negotiating an accommodation among all parties in Afghanistan?
  3. What would be required for the U.S., Iran, Baluchi dissidents, and Pakistan to achieve a consensus on a policy that would pacify the province and improve the lives of the Baluchis?
  4. In an international political context of addressing the grievances of Palestinians, how might Iran participate in a way acceptable to all parties?

“Engagement” will require a Mideast policy that will promote regional security for all states, will address the concerns of dissident movements, and will make room for a rising Iran. It will require concessions from Washington but will also offer the potential for benefits. The domestic dialogue in the U.S. needs to address both the concessions the superpower should be willing to make and the benefits it wants to obtain.

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