http://www.agenceglobal.com/Article.asp?Id=2453BEIRUT -- From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, the central conflict in the Middle East that spilled over to influence many other domestic and regional issues was the Arab-Israeli conflict, which for most of that period overlapped with the United States-Soviet Union Cold War. In the past decade, the confrontational center of gravity in the Middle East has shifted somewhat to include a new dynamic that sees Iran and some Arab allies together forming a “deterrence and resistance front” that both confronts and engages with the United States, Israel and some conservative Arab parties. As the Iranian-led defiance of the U.S. has linked with the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, it has become far more difficult for any would-be diplomat and conflict-resolver to achieve a breakthrough on any of the many regional conflicts.
The old “Middle East conflict” has now been transformed into multiple conflicts that combine to form a broader “Middle East confrontation” comprising many parties and sources of disagreement, tension and active political or military battles. In this context, it is not just the fact of a large, dynamic and robust Iran being an active player in the region that makes a difference, especially through its close ties with Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Rather, it is the spirit of defiance and the demand for respect and the equitable application of a single standard of international law that Iran tries to project and champion that comprise an important new factor in the regional and global diplomatic equation.
Broadly speaking, Americans and their elected officials have remained chronically clueless about this reality and how to deal with it for a combination of reasons -- including historical bilateral tensions, a general weak spot in American diplomacy outside the confrontational context of the old Cold War, the incessant and strong goading of pro-Israel fanatics in Washington, the United States’ general inability to sort out religion from nationalism, and an almost biological hysteria about how to deal with strong, proud, defiant and uppity Muslims or Muslim-majority countries. The result has been an erratic track record in American-Iranian relations that has seen tensions persist and increase, while core issues raised by both sides remain unresolved.
American sanctions and pressures and Iranian resistance and defiance have given both sides emotional satisfaction, but few real political gains or successes. There is an almost juvenile dimension to how the United States and Iran conduct their bilateral relations -- or non-relations -- so it is refreshing to see a new report just published by a group of 40 specialists in the U.S. that suggests a more effective strategy for dealing with this matter.
The report by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Stimson Center -- "Engagement, Coercion, and Iran’s Nuclear Challenge” – is the culmination of a year’s work by over 40 scholars and policy analysts who conclude that the United States should “rebalance its approach to Iran, leveraging the gains achieved from sanctions by indicating a willingness to engage Iran diplomatically on a wide range of issues.” The title of the report could have been more judiciously crafted to transcend the American-Israeli fixation on Iran’s nuclear industry, and instead -- as the report itself does -- acknowledge the need to address a much wider range of strategic issues that are important to both sides. But the transition from an adolescent to a mature adult condition in ideology and diplomacy as in biology occurs in stages, rather than all at once.
Among the recommendations for engagement offered by co-authors Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center and Daniel Brumberg of USIP are:
• Washington’s need to make adjustments of comparable importance to the demands it is making of Iran, such as recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under international safeguards.
• Avoiding threats of the use of force by the United States or Israel, which only reinforce those in Tehran who believe Iran requires nuclear weapons for its security and undermines those who argue for compromise with the international community.
• Taking advantage of the leverage gained from sanctions to reinvigorate, broaden, and engage Iran diplomatically and strategically, which might persuade more pragmatic members of the ruling elites in Tehran that it is in Iran’s own interest to end its estrangement from the international community by reaching a compromise on the nuclear, and other security, issues.
Such an approach, though still debatable, would be far wiser than either military clashes or a long-term containment policy after Iran achieves its full nuclear aims, whether those aims are simply a full enrichment cycle or producing nuclear weapons. As the United States and its Western allies prepare to sit down and resume negotiations in the coming weeks, it is heartening to see that some thoughtful adults in Washington are pondering how to address the issues at hand with more sophistication, nuance, realism and pragmatism than has been the case to date. If similar signs emerge in Tehran, we may have a deal.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.