World Jewry has regarded the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran with considerable apprehension. The unsettling chant of “Death to Israel, Death to America,” heard at official rallies across the Islamic Republic, combined with Iran’s support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas is taken by some as indicative of Iran’s unbending desire to destroy its foes. Add to this Iran’s alleged attempts to produce nuclear weapons, and it becomes clear that something must be done, and what has been done has been a categorical failure. The more levelheaded of analysts have called for serious sanctions against Iran aimed at either undermining the regime or moderating its behavior. Others, such as Senator Joe Lieberman and Knesset Member Shaul Mofaz have called for military strikes against Iran by their respective countries.
The potential scope of a war with Iran makes such actions unconscionable, and sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran’s nuclear efforts. A wiser policy would be to recognize that despite all of the damning rhetoric, our problem with the Islamic Republic is not so much the fact that it is a fundamentalist Muslim government (as is our erstwhile ally Saudi Arabia) but the fact that Iran is increasingly influential in the Middle East and in opposition to the West. Given that Iran makes its foreign policy decisions based on a rational desire to increase its security and power (just like any other nation) and has many of the same interests as the US, suggests that a wiser policy would be to find a way to work with Iran, turning its influence to our advantage.
Iran has a role to play in all of the major conflicts in the region from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east straight through Iraq, to Lebanon and Israel in the west. To attack Iran is to risk igniting a regional conflagration as Iran has skillfully built a network of militias in all of these countries. In Iraq, the Shiite groups responsible for the devastating road side bombs were never defeated, but were pressured by Iran to lay down their arms to allow the Iraqi government (also Iran’s allies) to regain control of Sadr city and Basra. These groups remain organized and armed and can be easily reactivated, reversing America’s recent gains in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Iran has great sway over many of the most powerful warlords and has the capacity to arm and train them for attacks against coalition forces. Iran’s ally Hezbollah is the defacto government in Lebanon and has proven its ability to shut down the northern half of Israel with rockets, a threat to which Israel has no credible response. Even in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Iran has begun organizing local Shiite populations to threaten Iran’s Sunni enemies. It is clear, given the experiences of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in Lebanon, that America and her allies do not have the capacity to cope with a conflict raging from the shores of the Mediterranean to the border of Pakistan.
This leaves the option of serious sanctions in the form of a blockade on Iran’s oil exports and gasoline imports. This would adversely affect not only Iran’s economy but would send world oil prices spiraling upward at a time when the world economy is on the edge of a precipice. It is also questionable what such a policy would achieve. Sanctions are intended to not only punish governments for their actions, but more importantly to coerce them to change. In reality, however, sanctions have categorically failed to cause hostile governments to capitulate. Just look at Iraq and Cuba.
Israel’s has recognized its inability to change Iran’s behavior and has set out on its own to change the strategic environment. It is not a coincidence that negotiations with Syria restarted after the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Israel realized that the IDF is not capable of destroying Hezbollah (a lesson that should have been learned after the 2000 evacuation of southern Lebanon), and saw it quickly rearm with the help of Syria and Iran. Israel has been decided that the Golan Heights, the source of a third of Israel’s water, might be worth trading for a peace deal with Syria. The 2006 war also pushed Syria to the peace table as it allowed Syria to bargain from a position of increased strength. Should a deal be concluded Iran will see its influence recede considerably as Syria will re-enter the fold of Sunni Arab states, and Hezbollah and Hamas will lose a major ally used as a middle-man between Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. All of this would be great but does not address the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
Although the Iranian government is fundamentalist, it is no more so than Saudi Arabia and is certainly not comparable to the likes of al-Qaeda whose goal of establishing a Sunni Caliphate from Pakistan to Spain is totally irrational. Iran, on the other hand, has proven itself a shrewd, rational actor. Nowhere more so than in Iraq where Iran has demonstrated that the influence it wields is an invaluable resource in the struggle to stabilize the region.
Surprisingly, Iran has the same goals in Iraq as the US. First and foremost Iran wants to be sure that Iraq will never again pose a threat to Iran’s security. To achieve this Iran would like to see its neighbor become a federated state with a weak central government controlled by the Shiite majority that will naturally gravitate towards Tehran. Democracy in Iraq, has of course, achieved this precisely.
As I mentioned earlier, many of the gains the surge has claimed in the past year are attributable to Iran. It was Revolutionary Guard General Kassem Suleiman who cut a deal between the Iraqi Government and Muqtada al-Sadr in which al-Sadr’s Mahdi army allowed the Iraqi army to reclaim Shiite neighborhoods and ceased laying road side bombs aimed at maiming US soldiers.
The government we have installed in Iraq is led by Shiite parties who fought on the side of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. One of which, the Dawa party, even blew up the American and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983. The other major party, SICI, was created in Iran during the war to organize Iraqi Shiite resistance groups under Iran’s tutelage. Iran and the US are currently both trying to shore up the Iraqi government.
In Afghanistan, the picture is much the same. Historically, Iran and Pakistan have competed for influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s traditionally ally in this struggle has been its proxy the Taliban, also supported by Saudi Arabia, while Iran was supplying and training our allies the Northern Alliance. After September 11th, the US threw its considerable weight behind the Northern Alliance, overthrowing the Taliban and installing Iran’s ally Hamid Karzai. Although it is not often discussed, Iran was instrumental in bringing the Karzai government to power. Iran was a decisive factor in coercing many of Afghanistan’s most influential warlords into backing Karzai. There is no reason why Iran and the US cannot work together to stabilize these two countries and shore up their mutual allies in their struggle against the Sunni extremists.
Though the thought of working with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is distasteful to many, it should be noted that he is not the primary decision maker in Iran. This honor belongs to Grand Ayatollah Khameini. Though Khameini too is a fundamentalist, he is also a pragmatist. In 2003 he offered to put all issues on the table (including, support for terror, nuclear weapons, and opposition to Israel) in negotiations with the US. His offer was ignored and Iran’s allies have since come to power in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, making it unlikely that Iran will propose a similar deal any time soon. With oil prices dropping, however, and the Europeans led by Sarkozy taking a hard-line on Iran’s nuclear program, America’s leverage is on the rise.
Broadly outlined, an agreement with Iran would be as follows. First, Iran wants its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan to be recognized. When the US leaves, and it will, Iran will have preeminent influence in these countries. There is nothing that can be done to stop this. America would also work to ensure the Islamic Regime’s survival as it does the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian dictatorship. Trade relations would also be normalized. Iran would be required to support a two state solution in Israel/Palestine, push Hezbollah and Hamas into becoming political parties with no militias, and verifiably establish that it has no nuclear weapons program.
Beyond the US and Israel, Iran’s main strategic competitor is Saudi Arabia. We can see this rivalry played out in many of the conflicts in the Middle East. In Palestine, the Saudis back Fatah, Iran backs Hamas. In Lebanon Iran backs Hezbollah, the Saudis back Sunni Salafist groups. In Iraq Saudi Arabia has gone as far as to publicly proclaim its intention to arm Sunni insurgents in the civil war against Iranian backed Shiite militias should the US pull out prematurely. America’s current Middle East policy is Saudi-centric and the results of this have been mixed. Fifteen of the September 11th hijackers were Saudi, indicative of the Wahabist ideology the Saudi government has spread to the far reaches of the Muslim world through its network of Madrasas. The Saudi’s have, however, been instrumental in shunning Syria and the Peace Plan it floated in 2003 was a significant development. Iran wants to become the preeminent power in the Middle East, a potentially revolutionary development in the struggle between Shiites and the traditionally dominant Sunni. It will be America’s job to carefully balance its relationship with these two competing and important powers.
But what of Israel? Although Ahmadinejad has gained a great deal of notoriety for proclaiming his desire to wipe Israel off the map, Iran has long maintained that it would acquiesce to any peace deal agreed to by the Palestinians. The contours of such a deal are well known: Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinians, dismantling the vast majority of the settlements, and East Jerusalem as the capitol of an independent Palestine. Establishing a working relationship with Iran will be a crucial element of creating peace in Israel. Both Israel and the Palestinians have no choice but to agree to the two state solution but need the weight of the world (including that of Iran upon the Palestinians) to force them to do so.
There is a general fear amongst Jews that someday America will reassess its strategic interests in the Middle East and betray Israel in order to appease the Arabs. The plan broadly outlined above would require no sacrifice on the part of Israel that its leaders have not emphatically endorsed. In a recent interview with Yedidot Ahronot, Prime Minister Olmert, a former right-wing stalwart stated that Israel needs to give up the territories conquered in 1967 and characterized calls for Israel to bomb Iran as “megalomania.” Yitzhak Rabin, a lifetime warrior, realized that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War that Israel’s military edge over the Arabs would never be better, thus making it an ideal time to conclude a deal. Unfortunately, through strategies of asymmetric warfare, the Arab world has since closed that gap but the general calculation remains the same.