In just a few days, the Middle East dynamics have begun to shift. First, President Obama’s interview with al-Arabiya. Then Vice President Biden’s speech at the Munich security conference. Next, former Iranian President Khatami’s announcement that he will run again in the June presidential election. Followed by current Iranian President Amadinejad’s announcement that Iran is ready to talk with the US. And finally, the inconclusive Israeli election.
These dynamics reflect three main forces: Iran’s role as a regional power; the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; internal Israeli as well as Muslim and Arab divisions.
The new Obama Administration is beginning to address all three in a coherent way.
For 30 years, Iran and the US have regarded each other warily, distorted by the extreme rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution and by American saber rattling. While the US and Iran have had a complicated relationship since World War II, the roots of Western-Iranian distrust extend from the 19th Century British-Russian Great Game, through Nazi Germany’s close ties to Iran before World War II, to the joint US-British-engineered coup that firmly entrenched the then-young shah on the Peacock Throne in 1953 and established the US as the dominant external influence in Iran for the next 25 years. Following the 1979 revolution, distrust of the US deepened as America supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and isolated the Tehran regime.
Yet Iran, with significant oil reserves, a large, well-educated, and young population is a major power in the Middle East. Postwar US policy recognized this, and helped modernize Iran throughout the1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But in so doing, and by supporting an increasingly isolated authoritarian regime, it helped create the conditions for the 1979 revolution that rejected Western secular materialism. The collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated a threat on Iran’s northern border and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq weakened or eliminated Iran’s other major enemies -- al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein – while increased oil revenues, until recently, significantly bolstered the regime and enabled it to keep its population generally satisfied.
Today, with 60% of its 70 million people under 30, Iran is searching for the benefits of economically developed modernity coupled with more traditional social values. These are people who did not suffer under the shah, nor lead the revolution, nor fight Iraq. But they want more than the economic stagnation, rampant 25% inflation, 15% unemployment, relative isolation and sanctions from the larger world community triggered by the current government’s actions and the collapse in oil revenues. This undoubtedly influenced former President Khatami’s decision to run again in June.
The Obama Administration, emphasizing “listening not dictating,” seeks to start a new dialogue based on “mutual respect.” But both Obama and Biden, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, continue to underscore that Iran’s “illicit nuclear program” and support for Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism are not acceptable to the international community. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad has suggested talks are both possible and desirable to create “real change.”
Backchannel conversations have surely taken place since the November US election. Now is the opportunity for the Obama Administration to intensify diplomatic contacts with Iran. Academic, cultural and athletic exchanges will signal new attitudes of openness on both sides. Designation of a seasoned special envoy to Iran, with stature equivalent to the other special regional envoys, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, will underscore seriousness of purpose and strengthen preparations for a substantive meeting between the US secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister, whether before or after the June Iranian election. During his earlier presidency, Khatami was supported by the young as well as moderate politicians in Iran in seeking détente with the US. The US should make it absolutely clear that it has no interest in creating instability, meddling in the election, or seeking regime change.
In this context, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes into sharp relief.
Until the 1979 revolution, Iran and Israel had broad commercial relations and their intelligence services cooperated closely to counter a common Iraqi foe. Though Muslim, Iran is not Arab. Indeed, for centuries Arabs and Persians have contested for pre-eminence in the region, and the cultural-ethnic roots of the historic differences have been complicated by the Shiite-Sunni schism among Muslims, with Iran predominantly Shiite and the Arab world predominantly Sunni.
With the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Iran could plausibly play the role of dominant regional power, potentially countered only by Israel. Gradually, anti-Israel rhetoric appeared in Iranian pronouncements, an alliance was made with Syria, and money and arms channeled to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran also began its nuclear program, targeting, it asserts, development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Its acceleration of uranium enrichment, however, has led the UN Security Council to question its purposes and impose successive levels of sanctions, thus far to little effect. And the early February launch of a satellite raised regional as well as broader Western fears of near-term Iranian ability to deliver substantial weapons by missiles.
It is important to note, however, that during Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza, Iran did not encourage Hezbollah to fire rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon. This suggests that Iran currently does not want to provoke a military conflict with Israel and may be satisfied with protracted stalemate.
Israel, on the other hand, appears profoundly threatened by Iran and its nuclear program. It has been reliably reported that Israel sought American bunker-busting bombs for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations last year, a request denied by the Bush Administration.
Fear and distrust are powerful driving forces. Both are at play throughout the region.
Israel seems convinced that Iran is actively blocking a two-state settlement by supporting Hamas extremism, undermining the Palestinian Authority, together with Syria fostering instability in Lebanon, whether or not threatening its very existence.
With the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran believes the US has been pursuing a policy of regime change that would ultimately be brought to bear on Tehran.
The Gulf States, with the possible exception of Qatar, fear the looming presence of a much larger and more powerful Iran.
Saudi Arabia tries to maintain its status as protector of the Muslim faith and spiritual leader of the Muslim world, and offers a bold plan for regional peace even while its multiple internal rival factions continue to spend millions supporting extremist as well as moderate movements.
Egypt, suffering political sclerosis of extended one-man rule and in continued fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its various incarnations, struggles to stay true to its agreements with Israel to keep the billions of US aid flowing to maintain the Mubarek regime.
Syria is currently aligned with Iran, but in the relatively recent past was moving toward accepting land-for-peace proposals. Lebanon strives to regain a relatively normal existence, so often prematurely shattered by internal strife, Syrian or Israeli intervention.
Turkey is increasingly trying to play a positive role by brokering conversations among the adversaries. And Jordan tries quietly to aid progress toward peace, because with far fewer resources, and a far greater proportion of Palestinians, its stability is fragile.
As Vice President Biden pointed out in his Munich speech, “a small -- and I believe a very small -- number of violent extremists are beyond the call of reason. But hundreds of millions of hearts and minds in the Muslim world share the values we hold dearly. We must reach them ... through a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
How can the Obama Administration play honest broker in this environment?
The US needs to put itself in the psychological and cultural shoes of Middle Easterners and try to understand the world as Middle Easterners see it. Americans typically approach problems incrementally, sequentially and pragmatically. In the Middle East, by contrast, problems are seen and approached as being interrelated -- Israel, Palestine, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran -- are tied together. The US must realistically acknowledge that all these issues and more are indeed linked together. At the same time it can help identify simple, discrete steps that overcome distrust, build confidence, and help create both the environment and the attitudes that enable more comprehensive actions.
The key to playing this role successfully is projecting an even-handed relationship with all parties. The US could not previously assume such a role given the Bush Administration’s reflexive support of Israel and its policies.
Which brings us to the biggest wildcard: What will Israel’s path forward be, and how will the US and the entire region react?
Benjamin Netanyahu has said that his top priority is “harnessing the US administration to stop the threat” of Iran’s nuclear program and that “everything that is necessary” will be done to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He has also said he will not partition Jerusalem, nor abandon the West Bank settlements. In his prior stint as prime minister, he undermined progress toward a two-state settlement based on land for peace.
Tzipi Livni has endorsed the Saudi peace plan, as have leaders of Labor. She vigorously denounces Iranian support for Hamas, and strongly supported the Gaza invasion as a way of crippling Hamas. Yet Livni has been quoted in the past as believing that Iran’s nuclear program does not pose an “existential threat” to Israel.
Avigdor Lieberman appears to be the king-maker of the next Israeli government. But a unity government of Likud and Kadima, perhaps with Labor support as well, would have no need of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. By isolating Lieberman and his more radical and racist followers, such a coalition would certainly be more conducive to rapid renewal of progress toward regional peace.
Whatever the outcome of the Israeli coalition discussions and the Iranian presidential election, it is in the US interest to orchestrate positive participation by the EU, France and the UK, Turkey and Russia, to engage directly and indirectly with Iran, and draw all the Middle Eastern states into a dramatically broadened dialogue that focuses on defining and working toward the shared benefits of peace and economic development throughout the region. The pan-Arab peace proposal offered by the Saudis should not be allowed to wither.
With sustained American attention and vigorous leadership of special envoys such as Sen. Mitchell and Amb. Holbrooke, the US will be able gradually to guide all participants toward a more comprehensive regional settlement including a viable Palestinian State, credible security for Israel guaranteed by multiple powers – not only the US, but also the EU, and Russia and China in their roles as permanent UN Security Council members -- and supported by a UN buffer force, and regional economic development financed in part by oil revenues targeted on creating and extending regional relationships and interdependence.
Without it, fear and distrust will continue to dominate, and periodically degenerate into outright war as they have before.