IS A U.S.-IRAN 'BARGAIN' POSSIBLE?
By Patrick Seale
Gulf News (Dubai)
February 15, 2008
There are welcome signs of a coming thaw in America's hostile and ice-bound relations with Iran -- if not in the remaining months of George W. Bush's presidency then under his successor. For the first time in many years, such a possibility is being actively debated and envisaged by American policy-makers and influential think-tanks.
Washington sources report that leading politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties are beginning to explore the possibility of a radical shift in American policy towards Iran, once a new Administration takes office in January 2009.
Barack Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, has said that, if elected president, he would seek to engage Iran in a wide-ranging dialogue.
This is only one aspect -- although one of the most important -- of the break now in preparation with some key features of Bush's foreign policy, notably his "global war on terror," which is widely credited with having increased rather than diminished the terrorist threat to the United States and its allies.
Driving the need for a change of direction is the growing realization that Bush's foreign policy towards the Arab and Islamic world -- largely influenced by pro-Israeli neo-conservatives -- has been a catastrophic failure. It has undermined America's credibility around the world and aroused immense distrust.
Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been -- and continue to be -- costly disasters. In addition, in spite of his call for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement before the end of his mandate, Bush has not actually advanced the cause of peace by even the smallest degree. On the contrary, he has aroused Arab, Iranian, and Muslim outrage by supporting Israel's two ill-conceived wars against Hezbollah and Hamas: the first led to massive destruction and loss of life in Lebanon, and the second to the cruel siege of the entire Gaza population, a continuing "collective punishment" in blatant violation of international law.
Another spectacular failure has been Bush's effort to force Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Quite the reverse, Iran has redoubled its enrichment efforts by installing an advanced centrifuge at its Natanz nuclear complex. Meanwhile, American-led sanctions against Iran, its attempts to undermine the Iranian banking system and economy, allied to the threat of military attack, have triggered a patriotic backlash in Iran, where the nuclear program has become a national cause. Just this week, on the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a million-strong rally in Tehran: "They should know that the Iranian nation will not retreat one iota from its nuclear rights." Standing up to the United Stated and Israel on the nuclear issue, as well as on Iraq and Palestinian, has greatly contributed to enhancing Iran's regional influence.
A crucial contribution to the debate over what to do about Iran will be a report by Mohammad Al Baradei, director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), due for publication on February 20. It is expected to contain answers to questions by the IAEA about Iran's clandestine nuclear activities in the 1980s and 1990s.
Al Baradei's report will be scrutinized to see whether it confirms or disputes America's National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded last December that Iran had halted its military nuclear program in 2003.
Hawks in the U.S. Administration -- and in Israel -- fear that if the IAEA gives Iran a clean bill of health, the prospect will evaporate of imposing tougher sanctions on Iran by means of a third U.N. Security Council resolution.
China and Russia, as well as non-permanent members of the Council such as South Africa, have already indicated that they are unlikely to assent to such a resolution. As for the Arab world, it is already abundantly clear that American attempts to mobilize so-called "moderates" in an anti-Iran coalition have also failed. Egypt, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia have all made clear that they have no intention of participating in any such American-led campaign.
In an interview on 31 January with La Repubblica, Italy's largest circulation daily, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was asked, "Did Bush ask you to forge a common front against Iran?"
Mubarak replied: "This is not the time for resorting to threats or to the use of force. That would serve solely to set the Gulf, the Middle East, and the whole world on fire. What is needed, rather, are dialogue and diplomacy."
There is a good deal of latent distrust and antagonism between Shiite Iran and Saudi Arabia, a pillar of Sunni Islam. But, from a cautious beginning in 1998, détente has been flourishing between the two regional powers, to the extent that something like a new spirit of coexistence has taken hold. The Kingdom has also made great efforts to draw its own Shiite minority, mainly located in the eastern province, into the national community.
As for the Gulf States, they are busy trading with Iran and are totally opposed to an American policy of confrontation and coercion. Speaking at a conference this month on Iran at Washington's Middle East Institute (MEI), Dr. Ibtisam Al Kitbi, a professor of political science at the UAE University, reminded her audience that about 10,000 Iranian firms were operating in the Emirates, that Iranian assets in the UAE were estimated at $66 billion, and that Iran was the Gulf's biggest trading partner. It is against this background of American failure that voices are being raised in the U.S. in favor of a "grand bargain" with Iran, beginning with unconditional comprehensive talks in order to resolve differences and normalize bilateral relations.
At the same MEI conference, Hillary Man Leverett, a former State Department and National Security Council official, outlined some of the conditions for a strategic understanding between Washington and Tehran.
The U.S. would need to recognize Iran and establish diplomatic relations with it; acknowledge Iran's role in the region; terminate Iran's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; lift U.S. unilateral sanctions; and commit not to use force to change Iran's form of government, but on the contrary agree to beginning an ongoing strategic dialogue with Tehran.
In return, Iran would need to provide a "definitive resolution" of U.S. concerns about Iran's possible pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Iran would need to ratify and implement the IAEA's additional protocol, which provides for intrusive and unannounced inspections.
It would need to help in transforming Hezbollah into a purely political and social movement. It would need to work for a stable political order in Iraq. And it would need to declare that it was not opposed to a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Such a blueprint for a new relationship between the U.S. and Iran would require great courage and vision on both sides. It is a task for the next American president. If implemented, it would transform America's image in the world and make an immense contribution to resolving conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, above all, that between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which is the most poisonous and long-running conflict of them all.
--Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.