The Iranian Challenge | The Nation


The Iranian Challenge

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The National Intelligence Estimate released December 3 reports Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, pulling the US back from the Bush Administration's plans for war. In an essay published November 19, Trita Parsi outlined the steps toward a sane relationship between the US and Iran.

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Trita Parsi
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret...

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Obama’s abandonment of patient diplomacy—combined with Israel’s bellicose demands—has pushed us dangerously close to conflict.

Iran will be the top foreign policy challenge for the United States in the coming years. The Bush Administration's policy (insistence on zero enrichment of uranium, regime change and isolation of Iran) and the policy of the radicals around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (unlimited civilian nuclear capability, selective inspections and replacing the United States as the region's dominant power) have set the two countries on a collision course. Yet the mere retirement of George W. Bush's neocons or Ahmadinejad's radicals may not be sufficient to avoid the disaster of war.

The ill-informed foreign policy debate on Iran contributes to a paradigm of enmity between the United States and Iran, which limits the foreign policy options of future US administrations to various forms of confrontation while excluding more constructive approaches. These policies of collision are in no small part born of the erroneous assumptions we adopted about Iran back in the days when we could afford to ignore that country. But as America sinks deeper into the Iraqi quicksand, remaining in the dark about the realities of Iran and the actual policies of its decision-makers is no longer an option.

A successful policy on Iran must begin by reassessing some basic assumptions:

1. Iran is ripe for regime change.

Not true. Although the ruling clergy in Iran are very unpopular, they are not going anywhere anytime soon. (A distinction obviously needs to be made here between the electoral survival of the Ahmadinejad government and the survival of the system as a whole.) The Iranian people certainly deserve a better government--one that provides Iran's youthful population with a better economic future and respects human rights--but the current choice Iranians face is not between Islamic tyranny and democratic freedom. It is between chaos and stability. The increased tensions with the United States over the past year have only strengthened the government's hold on power by limiting the space for prodemocracy activists (much as the 9/11 attacks paved the way for the passing of the Patriot Act and the weakening of Americans' civil rights). Whatever we think of the clergy in Tehran, we cannot afford wishful thinking about their imminent departure.

2. Iran is irrational and cannot be deterred.

Not true. Iran's foreign policy behavior is highly problematic for the United States, but a careful study of Iran's actions--not just its rhetoric--reveals systematic, pragmatic and cautious maneuvering toward a set goal: decontainment and the re-emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent power in the Middle East. Iran often conceals its real objectives behind layers of ideological rhetoric, with the aim of confusing potential enemies and making its policies more attractive to the Muslim nations it seeks to lead. At times it even simulates irrationality as an instrument of deterrence, the calculation being that enemies will be more reluctant to attack Iran if Tehran's response can't be predicted and won't follow a straight cost-benefit analysis. (Richard Nixon used the same strategy during the cold war, in what he called the "madman theory"; he sought to deter the Soviets by making them think he was slightly mad and unpredictable.) In reality, the United States--and Israel--have a long history of deterring Iran. During the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel signaled Tehran's leaders that it would retaliate against Iran if Hezbollah struck Tel Aviv with long-distance missiles. Tehran got the message. Despite many promises by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to hit Israel if the Jewish state continued the bombardment of Lebanon, Iran prevented Hezbollah from using its long-range missiles. Deterrence worked, and an uncontrollable escalation of the war was avoided.

3. Iran is inherently anti-American.

Not quite. To Iran anti-Americanism is a means, not an end. Iran believes that its size and power position it to play a major role in regional affairs. This aspiration, however, clashes with America's aim of isolating and containing Iran. As long as public opinion in the Middle East remains largely critical of the United States, and as long as Washington continues to seek a regional order based on excluding Iran, Iran will likely play on anti-Americanism to make Washington's policy of exclusion as costly as possible and to rally existing anti-American sentiment around Iranian objectives. But if the strategic environment in the region changes--with a different relationship between Tehran and Washington as a result--the utility of anti-Americanism will fade away.

4. Enrichment equals a nuclear bomb.

Not necessarily. The current nuclear impasse is partly rooted in the questionable assumption that zero enrichment is the only route to avoid an Iranian bomb. While the optimal situation is one in which Iran does not enrich, this goal is no longer possible. But that does not mean that a small-scale Iranian enrichment program is tantamount to a nuclear bomb. According to nuclear experts like Bruno Pellaud, former deputy director general and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Department of Safeguards, intrusive inspections is the best tool to ensure that Iran doesn't divert its civilian program into a military one. Yet these inspections can only take place as part of a package deal with Iran that includes some level of enrichment. This makes reassessment of the zero-enrichment objective all the more important.

5. Iran seeks Israel's destruction.

False. As I explain in my book Treacherous Alliance, the Iranian clergy have strong ideological antipathy toward Israel, but ideology is not the primary driving force of Iranian foreign policy. The major shifts in Israeli-Iranian relations, from pragmatic entente in the 1960s and '70s to strategic rivalry in the 1990s, have occurred because of changing strategic--not ideological--realities. Whenever Iran's ideological and strategic imperatives have clashed--as was the case in the 1980s, when the common threat from the Soviet Union and Iraq prompted Iran and Israel to pursue clandestine cooperation--realpolitik has prevailed. Today, Iran's ideological and strategic imperatives largely coincide. Israel is seen as a strategic and an ideological threat, and as a result Tehran has actively confronted Israel. But Iran does not seek Israel's destruction, nor does its attitude toward Israel lack pragmatism. In 2002 Iran signaled that it was prepared to adopt a "Malaysian profile" on Israel in return for an end to Israeli and American efforts to isolate Tehran. Iran would, much like Malaysia, be an Islamic state that would not recognize Israel and would occasionally criticize it but would not directly confront the Jewish state. Iran and Israel would simply recognize each other's spheres of influence and stay out of each other's hair. The message was communicated to Israel through various channels, including a presentation by a senior Iranian military figure at a conference in Europe attended by several Israelis. Ze'ev Schiff, the late military affairs editor of Ha'aretz, told me that the consistency of Tehran's message "made it more clear that this was a policy" and not just empty talk. Though Iran has a new and more radical president today, it is still ruled by the same Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the concept of a "Malaysian profile" still enjoys support in the Iranian National Security Council--President Ahmadinejad's venomous rhetoric notwithstanding.

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