By: Hooshang Amirahmadi
With President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, US-Iran relations have made a dangerous turn toward confrontation. The President surprised many throughout the world, including leaders in Iran, when he used the word "evil" to describe a country that had most recently given strategic support to the United States in its Afghan war. He warned that a confrontational approach might become necessary to eliminate the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction that he claims originate from Iran.
While I disagree with Mr. Bush's characterization of Iran as a member of a purported "axis of evil", I do share his sense of urgency to change the current state of US-Iran relations. Relations between the two countries have been unfriendly for over two decades, and inimical relations produce inimical behavior and deeds. Complaints, rhetoric, warnings, and soft policies are no remedies; the best approach is to transform the status quo. The question is how?
Iran's past attempts to challenge the United States or mend relations with it through the use of economic relations, cultural exchanges, and cover-up diplomacy have all failed. Similarly, United States attempts to punish Iran through economic sanctions or to engage Iran through piecemeal incentives and passive invitations to dialogue have proven ineffective. In a situation of strategic concern and mutual distrust, a more resolute and purposeful plan is needed.
Three such plans are possible: "soft peace," "hard war," and a combination thereof. Being reluctant to take a bolder approach, Iran may wish to continue with its current "no war, no peace" policy toward the United States, which President Mohammad Khatami calls "détente." President Bush rejected this dead-end scheme. In the age of globalization, non-alignment is not an option for Iran.
The "hard war" approach to Iran underlies President Bush's State of the Union address. While it may be used to enforce a "soft peace," the approach, in isolation, can be harmful to the national interests of the United States. At the least, it will entail colossal death and destruction. Iran is no Afghanistan, nor Iraq: a country with 72 million people and a territory three times the size of France, Iran cannot be easily defeated or its nativist regime quickly overthrown.
Over the last two decades, Iranians have increasingly become US-friendly, and this was best demonstrated in the days following the September 11 tragedy: They held candlelight vigils, minutes of silence in Tehran Stadium, and anti-Taliban and Al-Qaeda demonstrations. Even the conservative media and authorities followed the people by condemning the terrorist acts and offering sympathy and tangible support to the US-Afghan war.
Iran is a country in a painful transition to democracy, and the only country where the people are rapidly moving away from radical Islam. Despite the onslaught of the religious right, the democratic movement survives and is joined by a growing number of aspirants. Time is not on the side of the hardliners, but a US-Iran confrontation could strengthen them. Some in Tehran view President Bush's "evil" talk as a "gift of God," a phrase the late Khomeini used to characterize the Iran-Iraq war.
A military confrontation with Iran, even if it were to be limited or "surgical" in nature, would surely spill over into the surrounding areas, jeopardizing energy supplies and regional stability. The gains made in Afghanistan could be the victim. The world oil market is already unstable, and radical Islam is prevalent, e.g., in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt. Free elections in these states would put such radicals in power. Military coups and despotic regimes are not viable future options.
A US-Iran war will also harm two other United States interests: Israeli security and the independence of states in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The national security of Israel has visibly deteriorated in recent years. This is despite US "containment" of Israel's foes and a growing Israeli hard line. The United States must also consider Russia's interest in increasing influence in its "near abroad" and China's interest in expanding its involvement in the geopolitics of energy in the region.
While counterproductive, the hard war option is a real possibility and, in the absence of an effective alternative to change the unsatisfactory state of US-Iran relations, the United States might find it necessary. The hawkish force behind the hard war approach may become more aggressive in time, and President Bush may be tempted to put his 80 percent popularity rate to a serious military use to resolve the most difficult US foreign policy problem in decades.
Iran must face up to this possibility. As the President warned, time is of the essence and his Administration will not wait for long to eliminate the "Iranian threat". It should be completely immaterial to Iran what logic or agenda lies behind the confrontational scheme and whether it is based on fact or fiction. The Iranian leadership should not postpone the strategic decision it must make for a bold diplomatic encounter with the United States.
Iran must offer the United States a soft peace that produces tangible gains. While not an easy policy shift, the diplomatic offer should not be harder than the "poison cup" the late Khomeini had to drink when he accepted the cease-fire with Iraq. The Iranian hawks will object to the shift, the American hawks will see this as an indication that force works, and the exiled opposition will advise the administration to continue the confrontation until the regime is overthrown.
It is time that the two administrations listen to the voice of reason. An honest soft peace will produce gains for all sides, but for it to become a reality, both governments need to give it a real chance. Iran must see it as the best remaining option, and the United States must make it easy for Iran to embrace the policy change. The Bush Administration must now complement its big pile of sticks with a similarly big pile of carrots. The price both sides would pay is much less than the cost they would incur in a confrontation.
What the carrot pile should include can be debated. It must begin with building mutual trust between the two governments regarding their intentions. One sure measure towards this end is simultaneous announcements that Tehran and Washington are ready to reestablish diplomatic ties. These announcements can be mediated by the United Nations. After all, lack of diplomatic relations even between countries at war is against the established norm of international diplomacy.
Another tool of trust building is a reciprocal acceptance of interests and role. Tehran must acknowledge the legitimate American global interests and role. The United States should do likewise with regard to Iran's regional interests and role. This reciprocity should not infringe upon the legitimate interests and role of other states. Cooperation is the key to regional trust building and creating a win-win situation.
Misperception has been at the root of mutual demonization and deception. To help build trust and confidence, both sides must broaden their perspectives of each other's concerns, deeds, intentions and capabilities. Iran must stop seeing the US Government as an "arrogant" world power bent to "destroy the Moslem world." True, Americans helped the British in the 1953 coup, but Americans also gave Iranians Howard Baskerville, who lost his life for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution.
American officials have stressed Iran's strategic significance, but this is often done to underscore its potential for aggression. The presumption that "a weaker Iran is a better Iran" was the basis of the "dual containment" policy, now expanded into an "axis of evil" policy. Yet, in the last 150 years, a strong Iran has never initiated any hostility toward its neighbors. In contrast, whenever Iran has been weaker, as in the post-1979 period, wars have been imposed on it and regional instability has followed.
The big carrot pile should also include specific incentives. The United States must repackage its previous offers to Iran and add new strategic incentives immensely attractive to Tehran. A global settlement of Iranian frozen assets, opening of pipelines through Iran, and energy investments are a few examples. While rich in oil and gas, geography, and human resources, Iran lacks the required capital and technology, shortcomings that the United States can uniquely help to mitigate.
But the carrot must be offered with clearly realizable objectives. Paramount among them for the United States is to see Iran become a strategic partner. This requires that the two countries develop a common language, purpose and action plan on terrorism and fundamentalism, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Palestinian question, regional security, stabilization of Afghanistan, and safe flow of oil from the region. The economic interests of the United States in Iran are far less important than its strategic and geopolitical interests.
Iran must deal with Israel as a de facto reality and Israel must change its perception of Iran as a threat. The two countries have no real basis for animosity. Palestine is not strategic for Iran. It has even ceased to be an Arab issue. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been effectively reduced to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Tehran has said it will accept any settlement reached by the two parties. Iran must do more: it must play a positive role toward a Palestinian state. The lack of peace is a serious obstacle to US-Iran rapprochement.
Iran has condemned terrorism, calling the fight against it a "holy war". The terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 have been Iran's enemies for years. Yet, to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, Iran must stop all relations with fundamentalist groups and denounce their violent activities. This change in policy should make Iran a partner with the United States on a definition of terrorism and its causal explanation.
Iran is a party to all international WMD conventions. Iran's nuclear facilities are open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran's sole reason to inspire WMD is the Iraqi threat. Israel and the United States are not targets. The war with Iraq demonstrated to Iran that Saddam Hussein would use all types of mass destruction weapons he controls. In the absence of the Iraqi threat, Iran can be persuaded to enter into an acceptable deal with the United Nations.
This approach to US-Iran relations requires a more unified and stronger government in Iran. Tehran must rally around President Khatami and the Leader Ali Khamenei must give him the mandate to work with Washington on the basis of full transparency and accountability. The Iranian people must isolate those opposed to the new policy and demand that reforms continue. National reconciliation within a democratic framework is an urgent necessity. At stake are Iran's national interest and future progress.
Princeton, New Jersey, February 2002
Hooshang Amirahmadi is a Professor of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and President of the American Iranian Council (www.american-iranian.org).
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