An article by Robert Hunter, a Rand Corporation scholar, Engage, Don't Isolate, Iran, that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on June 27, 2004, was both timely and insightful. Unfortunately, it was also a bit too politically correct.
The article's basic premise is indisputable: much better results, and at a much faster pace, can be achieved through open dialogue and negotiations with a counterpart that has repeatedly expressed its willingness for a rapprochement with the United States. That is if, in all honesty, a better resolution to the current Middle East turmoil, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian/Israeli issues, is truly the objective.
As counterintuitive as it might appear, we cannot take this "if" too lightly. We should also not naively brush aside our State Department and national security advisors as so patently gullible and incompetent that they don't see the solution to these problems as clearly as does Rand Corporation scholars like Mr. Hunter, or freelance observers like me, as dedicated to these issues as we are.
A more productive approach would be to examine what factor or factors might be involved in preventing this seemingly constructive rapprochement from taking place. What or whose interests might be served through the perpetuation of instability and potential explosiveness in the Middle East? A dispassionate investigation of this issue must set aside political biases, personal prejudices, flag-waving patriotism and other hindrances to an objective analysis.
To start, two points are worth highlighting in Mr. Hunter's article. First is the politically correct reiteration of the Administration's line that the Unites States' resistance to a new relationship with Iran stems from "..Iran's nuclear weapons program, its opposition to success in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and its continued support for terrorism, including Hezbollah."
Allegations such as these have been repeated ad nauseam as matters-of-fact by our media commentators and official agencies for public consumption. Similar, even harsher, allegations and accusations against the United States are being constantly drilled into the public mindset in Iran, as well as among other Islamic states in the region. At the professional diplomatic level, when the chips are down, there is no room for this kind of propagandist showmanship.
The second, perhaps even more significant, politically correct aspect of Mr. Hunter's thesis is the deliberate omission of the role of Israel in this diplomatic chess game. To discuss America's policies in the Middle East without addressing Israel's interests and intentions is like ordering a hamburger minus the meat and the buns!
Like Iran, Israel has very legitimate security concerns and economic interests in the region. What is helpful is that every government in the Middle East is cognizant of that fact, irrespective of the publicly declared antagonisms and saber rattling against Israel. In spite of all the rhetoric, there is hardly any doubt among the leaderships of the Islamic states as to Israel's right to exist, as well as its undisputed military superiority and, indeed, invincibility. In other words, America does not need to convince Iran or any other player in the Middle East of Israel's reality and guarantees for its support and protection in the region; these facts are self-evident.
At the same time, what is not helpful is that the very same military superiority and, up to this date, invincibility, mixed with Israel's outlandishly belligerent attitude, are viewed as very real, not just imagined, threats to the national security of Iran, as well as to others.
Another regional reality that cannot be overlooked is Iran's superior industrial infrastructure, manpower, and advanced technology, as compared to any other regional country. With a growing population of now over seventy million, and an economy that is not solely dependent on oil export as are the other oil exporting Middle Eastern states, it is natural, and should come as no surprise, for the Iranian government to devote all the resources it can afford to its military defenses. And, in today's Middle East, Iran's arsenal might, indeed should, even include nuclear weapons, especially in view of Israel's huge stockpile of nuclear warheads.
Mr. Hunter states that Iran's nuclear weapons program is one of several issues that keep Washington from engaging Tehran in a positive dialogue. If we assume that the Iranians are not a bunch of suicidal maniacs, Iran would have nothing to gain by initiating a nuclear attack against anybody, least of all Israel, which is doubtless our Administration's real concern. Iran has never transgressed against any other state, yet has been the object of aggression by Saddam's Iraq, 1980-88, and has been under threats of regime change and even preemptive military assault by the United States and Israel for the past two years. Any "danger" of Iran's use of nuclear weapons, if and when it should acquire such arsenal, would be in response to an Israeli attack upon its soil - in other words, in self defense. If the Israeli - and American - threats were somehow alleviated, Iran would not need such means of deterrence.
Another obstacle to a US rapprochement with Iran, according to Mr. Hunter, is Iran's opposition to the Arab-Israeli peacemaking. First of all, the phrase "Arab-Israeli peacemaking" is a misstatement; the correct phrasing would be "Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking." Secondly, Iran's stated official position has always been to support whatever terms are finally acceptable to the Palestinians in any settlement concluded with Israel. For Iran, support for Palestinian opposition movements against the Israeli occupation has been costly, both in terms of money and diplomatic hardships. Any settlement of issues between the Palestinians and the Israeli regime would be enthusiastically welcomed by Iran.
Regarding Iran's support for the Lebanese Hezbollah as a case of promoting international terrorism requires a redefinition of international terrorism. How could a political party that represents the majority of a population, in this case the Lebanese Shi'as, be classified as a terrorist organization, when its militancy has been aimed solely at forcing an army of occupation out of the Lebanese soil? It helps to understand how and when this terrorist label was assigned to Hezbollah by the State Department; it was in response to the unprecedented licking that Israeli forces received by the Lebanese resistance, leading to Israel's evacuation of most, but still not all, Lebanese territories that Israel had taken over in violation of all international norms.
All that said, in the final analysis it makes little difference whether all those allegations against Iran are true or politically motivated negative propaganda. Iran remains a formidable presence in the Middle East theatre, a presence that demands recognition by friend and foe. Robert Hunter's article hits the nail squarely on the head; Engage, Don't Isolate, Iran. I would repeat the same advice wholeheartedly, but with one caveat: Engage, don't isolate, Iran, if the true objective is peace and stability in the region.
I am personally not quite convinced that it is so.
About the author: Kam Zarrabi is writer, lecturer; former president, World Affairs Council of San Diego - North County.
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