Decision Time on Iran

8 03 2007

Middle East Times
8 March 2007

After refusing to endorse the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations in December to negotiate with Iran and Syria about the fate of Iraq, Secretary Rice’s recent policy reversal was as startling as it was predictable. Only weeks ago, it had been staunch US policy not to submit to Iranian “extortion,” but, like it or not, there is simply no other way now to secure Iraq. If only it were that simple.

This is the moment Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been waiting for: US foreign policy will soon reflect the fact that the war in Iraq cannot be won with force, and that we will have to make concessions of some kind to salvage this failed mission. But at whose expense?

In the buildup to the US invasion of Iraq, the Israeli government quietly gave its blessing to the Bush administration, hoping, in return, that the US would extend the same courtesy to Israel when the time came to address the blossoming Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Naturally, any such implicit exchange depended entirely on the successful reconstruction of Iraq – by even the flimsiest definition of success. As many on the right and left predicted, the failure to replace the toppled Saddam Hussein with a leadership able to contain Tehran’s regional ambitions has hurt Israel far more than forgoing the invasion would have done.

Like Israel, the US had hoped invading Iraq would also intimidate Iran, in much the same way Libya was frightened. But the US military is utterly paralyzed in Iraq and, thus, unable to scratch Israel’s back with a sustained air campaign to delay, or destroy, Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Unable to protect both interests, the Bush administration has caved, and Condoleezza Rice will now have to plead with Israel not to antagonize Iran, fearing more Iranian pressure on US forces in Iraq. But with fears of a new Holocaust gaining momentum in Israel, the Jewish nation will be unable to make nice.

Worse still, not only does an exhausted and scattered US military currently preclude Washington from confronting Tehran, but now that President Bush intends to publicly engage Iran in talks about Iraq, the US will very soon be forced to make a burdensome choice: protect tangible, current US interests in Iraq, or address the far more worrisome, but later-to-be-fulfilled threat of an Iranian nuclear arsenal?

It is simply impossible for President Bush to address both concerns – it will be difficult enough to deal with either. Regardless, Tehran is eagerly waiting to cash in its chips, fantasizing about control over Iraq, or a nuclear deterrent. Either outcome would hurt US security interests, but both of them terrify our allies in the Middle East.

Of all the countries, it is particularly worrisome for Israel to be put in this position, given the common – and understandable – Israeli belief that the Jewish nation cannot rely on anyone but itself. And if history is any indication, whenever Israelis taste the bitterness of realpolitik, war inevitably follows.

To stave off such a disaster, a number of US legislators and presidential hopefuls have begun a campaign of damage control to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It is crucial to encourage American leadership to address these concerns in a very public, but also very precise, manner.

For example, employing deliberate and tactful rhetoric, Senator Hillary Clinton recently emphasized dialogue with Iran and Syria, but not for explicitly dovish reasons: “If we have to pursue potential action against Iran, then I want to know more about the adversary that we face. I want to understand better what the leverage we can bring to bear on them will actually produce.”

Likewise, Senator John McCain insisted that we recruit other nations to impose additional multilateral sanctions on Iran, outside the UN framework.

Unfortunately, neither tactic will achieve the desired goal, but such declarations still serve an important purpose: by emphasizing sanctions and Clinton-style reconnaissance, Western leaders, and especially US legislators, are giving President Bush the necessary time and political cover to quietly reach an informal arrangement with Iran. Secretary Rice’s latest initiative is only the latest installment in this process – inevitable in every way.

Specifically, Tehran would get more influence in Iraq, and the West would get verifiable termination of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. At this point, even if Washington were willing to allow an Iranian nuclear program in order to ensure a peaceful Iraq, it is doubtful Tehran would accept such an offer. Regional influence has been paramount to Tehran for generations, and, regrettably, the Bush administration played right into it from the beginning.

It is equally tempting to hope that the recent rumors of division within the Iranian leadership will prevent us from even needing to negotiate a deal, but any foreign policy should be tethered to more than merely blind hope.

Rest assured, cutting a deal now will not feel good. We are Americans. We hate deals. It would have been better to negotiate with Tehran immediately after ripping down Saddam’s statue from its foundations. But adults cannot always get their first choice. We overreached, and it’s now consolation time.

[View this Op-Ed at Middle East Times]

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