Iran's current Middle East policy includes several key elements: a) support for Hizbollah and Hamas, b) strategic alliance with Syria, c) close ties with several Shi'a factions in Iraq, d) assistance to Shi'a militant groups, e) opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace initiative and support for armed struggle against Israel, f) opposition to the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and other Arab countries.
Simultaneous pursuit of these objectives has resulted in escalation of tensions between Iran and United States. It has also angered Israel to such a degree that the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States is encouraging the U.S. government to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah has intensified the determination of Israel and the United States to stop Iran's nuclear program by any and all means. Furthermore, Iran has angered the mainstream Arab regimes by its support for Hizbollah and its close association with the Shi'a government of Iraq. The predominantly Sunni Arab countries are worried about the growing influence of Shi'a population in Iraq and Lebanon. They are also worried about politicization of Shi'a minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
The strong opposition of the U.S., Israel and possibly Sunni Arab countries will not only prevent Iran from achieving its foreign policy objectives in the region, but it also puts Iran's nuclear program at risk. Both United States and Israel have threatened to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities if Iran does not stop its uranium enrichment program. Such an attack will not only destroy a large amount of Iran's nuclear assets but it could lead to a wider conflict and cause domestic political unrest inside Iran. In other words Iran's current predicament is nothing short of an existential gamble in which one of the many possible outcomes is military defeat and ethnic disintegration.
The danger of such a scenario has even been noticed by some mainstream politicians inside the Islamic regime in recent weeks. The former president Hashemi Rafsanjani has spoken out against President Ahmadinejad's conduct of foreign policy and his provocative statements about Israel. There are also indications that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, is also unhappy with Mr. Ahmadinejad's conduct. It seems likely that the Supreme leader will reduce his control over foreign policy and allow for some moderation in hope of defusing the current tensions. While these modifications are likely to be minor and thus ineffective, a basic revision of Iran's foreign policy toward Middle East is long overdue.
The Iranian policy makers must realize that simultaneous pursuit of all the objectives that were listed above will only make it more difficult to achieve any of them and more significantly it will put Iran's nuclear program at risk. Iran must focus on one or two consistent objectives and be prepared to modify or abandon any others that might be inconsistent with these top priorities. Iran's most important priority at present must be to protect its nuclear program and make sure it moves forward.
Iran has already spent billions of dollars of hard earned oil revenues on this program. There is no justification for putting this massive investment at risk for secondary objectives. Furthermore, even some American investigators have recently acknowledged that Iran's need for civilian nuclear power is legitimate. Unless Iran develops alternative sources of energy it will have to divert most of its oil and gas production to domestic consumption in about ten to fifteen years. Iran, therefore, must avoid any international posture that might be used as an excuse by powerful country to attack its nuclear assets or force it to abandon its nuclear program.
Three specific suggestions with regard to Iran's Middle East policy come to mind. First, Iran must modify its strategy for supporting the Palestinians. Instead of pursuing an independent policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran must coordinate its policy with Arab governments. Steadfast opposition to the peace process and direct contact with any group other than the Palestinian government will amount to an unjustified intervention in Palestinian affairs. Iran must instead allow the major Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take the lead in management of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such a coordination will improve Iran's relations with Arab governments and alleviate their fears that Iran is trying to interfere in Palestinian factional disputes.
Second, Iran must replace its opposition to the state of Israel with a policy of support for creation of a viable Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza strip. This modification does not require Iran to recognize Israel but it will help alleviate the international concerns about Iran's anti-Israeli posture. The idea of an independent Palestinian state has gained a good deal of international support in recent years and even the United States is slowly coming to terms with this concept. It must also be kept in mind that the only just and feasible solution to the Arab-Israel conflict is a two-state solution that envisions Israel and Palestine living side-by-side. Iran's view on Israel should not be more militant than the mainstream Arab countries. If Arab nations no longer call for destruction of Israel then, neither should Iran.
Third, instead of providing material or financial support to any political or militia groups in Iraq, Iran must work directly and exclusively with the Iraqi government. Any type of support for these non-governmental groups without the knowledge and approval of the central government will undermine Iraq's Shi'a-dominated government that Iran has fully recognized and supported. The Islamic government of Iran has had close ties with Iraq's Shi'a population for the past three decades but now that Shi'as dominate the Iraqi government because of their majority population, Iran must fully respect the authority of this government and help it stabilize the country. The success of Iraq's government in ending the violence and securing the country is in Iran's advantage. Iran must engage in a constructive dialogue with the Arab governments to address their fears and help them come to terms with the fact that Shi'a Iraqis have a legitimate right to govern that country because of their demographic advantage. To achieve this goal Iran must also be mindful of the suspicions of Arab countries about its motives in Iraq. It must take all necessary steps to assure the Arab world that it is not trying to turn Iraq into a satellite state or form a Shi'a alliance against the Sunni Arab governments.
As explained earlier these steps do not amount to a reversal in Iran's Middle East policy objectives. Instead, they will help defuse the escalating tensions in Iran's relations with the Arab governments that might end up siding with Iran's adversaries. Furthermore, some Arab groups and countries that Iran has tried to help in recent years have ended up facing more danger and hostility because of its close association with Iran. In other words the resources that Iran has invested in trying to support its allies in the Arab world have not brought about the outcome that it has hoped for. The United States encouraged Israel's war against Hizbollah in summer of 2006 because of its close ties with Iran. Hizbollah was able to survive this war but it is now facing strong opposition by other factions inside Lebanon and the United States is determined to isolate and weaken it in hope of reducing Iran's influence in the region. Hamas is faced with a similar faith in Palestine because of the support that it has received from Iran. Most important of all, one could say that the United States and Arab countries would have offered more support to the Shi'a dominated government of Iraq had it not been for their fear of Iran.
The tragic situation in Iraq has reminded the United States of the limits to its power and influence in the Arab world. It will be wise if Iran learns the limits to its influence before facing a tragic experience of its own. Close cooperation with the Arab world without cultural or political intervention is the best regional strategy for Iran. Iran shares many regional objectives with the Arab world and these objectives will be better served by cooperation and mutual respect between the two sides.
About the author: Nader Habibi is a Middle East economic analyst with Global Insight. (firstname.lastname@example.org) He is solely responsible for the content of this article.
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