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United States Should Not Squander Baker Commission Recommendations

By R. K. Ramazani
This article first appeared in Daily Progress on December 3, 2006.

The chorus of hostile diplomatic rhetoric against Iran threatens to drown out the idea of the Baker-Hamilton Commission to engage Iran to assist the stabilization of Iraq. Without the engagement of Iran, the spillover effects into the Middle East of the unfolding civil war in Iraq would be much greater and could lead to a region-wide conflict.


A previous attempt by the Secretary of State James Baker to engage Iran is instructive. In 1991, toward the end of the first Persian Gulf War, President George W.H. Bush praised Iran’s hands–off conduct during the war as “credible,” and Baker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 7, 1991 that Iran was “a major power in the Gulf” and should be included in postwar regional arrangements for peace and security in the Middle East. But hawkish opposition in Washington and Tel Aviv aborted the idea.


Similar hostility might well undercut Baker’s idea of engaging Iran today. Coming at a delicate time, only weeks before the Baker commission has a chance to make its recommendations to the Bush administration, the hostile American, Israeli and British campaign against Iran could not be more counterproductive.


On November 13, when the Baker panel members met the president at the White House, Bush reiterated his inflexible stand that he would not join the talks with Iran unless it first ceased enriching uranium. On the same day Israeli Prime Minister Ehd Olmert depicted Iran as a threat, not only to Israel,  but to “the whole world,” and Prime Minster Tony Blair accused Iran of putting obstacles in the path of peace and flouting international obligations, and he threatened Iran with isolation.


This enmity looks even more threatening from Iran’s point of view when seen against the backdrop of President Bush’s unprecedented alliance with Israel. In addition, Many Christian evangelicals, who constitute one-third of the American population, support Israel against Iran, as does the influential anti-Iranian Israel lobby


Nevertheless, Iran has made peaceful, diplomatic overtures regarding the situation. Iran offered assistance in securing Iraq during Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s first visit there. And recently, on November 14, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was willing to hold direct talks with the United States.


 But Ahmadinejad’s previous comments, questioning Israel’s right to exit and doubting the reality of the Holocaust have poisoned the political well in the United States. In tandem with the Israeli government, evangelical Christians have seized on his comments to depict Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and to the whole world.


And past comments by president Bush have affected the political climate in Iran as well. The president’s previous inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” rallied Iranians of all political stripes behind the nuclear program as a badge of national honor. And in an ironic demonstration of Iran’s burgeoning democratic political culture, Bush’s dismissal of the significance of Iran’s presidential election on the eve of the election in June 2005 fired up the electorate. Outraged by the president’s derogatory comments, Iranian flocked to the polls to elect the candidate least interested in ties with the United States.


The situation is grim, but not hopeless. To set the stage for rational discourse, Iranian and American leaders should heed their own countries’ diplomatic norms in dealing with each other.


The Iranian cultural norm counsels “moderation and compromise with enemies,” rooted in the core belief that the security of all human beings is inter-connected .The thirteenth-century Iranian poet, Sa’di, wrote, “The sons of men are members in a body whole related…When Fortune persecutes with pain one member sorely, surely, the other members of the body cannot stand securely.”


The American diplomatic norm is best articulated by George Washington, who counseled his countrymen in 1796, “to observe faith and justice towards all nations, cultivate peace and harmony with all” and avoid “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations,” otherwise “the nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred…is in some degree a slave.”


 Ronald Reagan seemed to heed this advice in 1986 when he said we should leave behind “old animosity” and forge “a new relationship” with Iran. President Bush’s father, with Iran in mind, said “good will begets good will”, and Henry Kissinger, who sometimes advises the Bush administration on Iraq, said on November 19, “I believe America has to have some kind of dialogue with Iran.” Meaningful talks between the United States and Iran, especially at this delicate time, can happen only if both sides cease the harsh rhetoric, rooted in decades of demonization, and look for common ground.


The exclusion of Iran in postwar security arrangements of the Middle East in 1991 did not make the region any more secure. The United States should not repeat that error in judgment. Failing to engage Iran now likely would destroy a new opportunity to promote common Iranian and American interests, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, containing the spread of al-Qaeda terrorist cells and nurturing the social, economic and political conditions in Iraq that are essential for promoting democracy and protecting human rights so deeply desired by both Americans and Iranians.


About the author: R.K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East. On occasions he has advised the U.S. government.


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