Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Iranian Call for Regional Security – More Charm Offensive or a Real Change?

The West is quick to criticize harsh Iranian rhetoric – choosing to
interpret a rhetorical flourish at face value, perhaps inflating it a bit,
perhaps mistranslating it to make it sound worse, perhaps making a headline out of a standard phrase that has been in use for decades.

So…how should we react to moderate, reasoned, thoughtful Iranian rhetoric?

In a speech pointedly given in Islamabad on Feb 9, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mohammadi called for a “new security strategy” for Iran’s neighborhood from the Mideast to Afghanistan and Pakistan, pointing out that “it has faced four wars in the last three decades.” He voiced support for Pakistan’s struggle against terrorism, advocated joint Iranian-Pakistani efforts to combat both terrorism and illegal narcotics in Afghanistan, noted the “moral confusion” of discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and called for the removal of foreign forces from Iraq. Americans should be so lucky as to get a new president willing to advocate such views. It would be difficult for anyone to disagree that recent decades have treated the region harshly and that changes are needed.

Mohammadi attributed the region’s chaos to “foreign interference,” evidently (judging from press reports) making quite clear that he holds the U.S. primarily responsible. That as well is a reasonable argument. The list of foreigners who have interfered in the region’s Moslem societies over the last three decades is of course long and obvious: Washington, Tel Aviv, and Moscow have invaded regional states so many times it is hard to remember them all:

  • Israel’s repeated invasions of Lebanon between 1982 and 2006;
  • Israel’s invasion of the West Bank and Gaza;
  • invasions of Afghanistan by the USSR and the U.S.;
  • the 1991 and 2003 US invasions of Iraq;
  • the 15 intervening years of U.S. air war against Iraq.

The list is much longer if military interference short of full invasion is included:

  • U.S. and European “peacekeepers” in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion taking a pro-Israeli stance;
  • the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities years ago;
  • Israel’s attack on a mysterious Syrian site this fall;
  • Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

And of course, the list is endless if one includes non-military forms of interference, including:

  • U.S., European, and Soviet support for Saddam’s war against Iran;
  • U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq between 1991 and 2003;
  • U.S. pressure today on Lebanon’s government to reject compromise with the opposition; Israeli threats of military attack on Iran;
  • U.S. pressure on Pakistan to attack domestic radicals;
  • U.S. threats against Iran despite repeated Iranian offers to negotiate.

Over the course of the three decades, overwhelmingly, external interference came either directly from Washington or indirectly via Washington’s proxies or allies (choose the word you prefer).

So it is hard to find fault with the thesis that chaos in the region has resulted from foreign interference, as far as it goes, though one could certainly argue that this thesis leaves out a large part of the story. Nevertheless, the hypothesis that the basic cause of regional turbulence is external interference deserves to be recognized by American politicians and voters.

Mohammadi evidently called for cooperation among Moslem countries, implicitly to take care of their own issues, thus eliminating the need? temptation? for “foreign interference.” This is a thoroughly reasonable and responsible concept, indeed, and one that gets at precisely what was missing from Mohammadi’s thesis that regional chaos was primarily the result of foreign interference. Given the history of foreign exploitation of the region by powers seeking oil, he certainly has a point. Nevertheless, imagine how different the region’s history over the last 30 years might have been if all the Moslem countries of the region had been able to agree on a joint strategic program to manage the region! It is pointless to argue about whether foreign interference or regional disunity was the “primary” cause of regional instability: in truth, the two causes have been intertwined, each exacerbating the effects of the other, frequently by intent.

The internal contradictions among even Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq (the three countries named by Mohammadi), and Iran have been profound and deadly over the last three decades.

Relations with Iraq. How far is Iran willing to go to reach a permanent settlement of its long-contentious border with Iraq? How much influence over Iraq’s domestic politics is enough to satisfy Tehran, now dizzy with glee at its sudden prominence in a country supposedly “conquered” by the world’s only remaining superpower?

Relations with the U.S. Iran gave significant support to the US invasion of Afghanistan (until Bush brushed Iran aside with his infamous “axis of evil” speech). Should Mohammadi’s speech be read as implicitly offering cooperation once again – if the next U.S. president proves willing to “sit down and reason together” rather than indulging in irresponsible and threatening rhetoric?

{This article sheds light on critically important distinctions between the
apparent views of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on this issue.}

Relations with Pakistan. What are the implications for Iran’s theocracy if it forms a regional strategic partnership with two Sunni states and especially with one (Pakistan) closely allied to Saudi Arabia? An Iranian-Pakistani entente implies an Iranian-Saudi entente, with fundamental
implications for Washington’s influence in the Mideast and for Israel’s ability to maintain its policy of expanding military dominance.

This was, of course, “just a speech.” But in the context of Iran’s recent campaigns both to
improve its ties with the Arab Gulf states and with Egypt, it would not be wise to dismiss this speech.

For an Iranian official to visit Pakistan in order to call for a regional security paradigm is an act of potential importance. If this idea worked, it would fundamentally restructure the region and consequently change world affairs. It would significantly constrain Washington’s freedom of behavior. Playing off a Saddam against a Khomeini would no longer be so easy for Washington.
Depicting Iran’s leaders as “mad mullahs” intent on attacking Israel would be a much harder argument to make with a straight face.

However, agreement on a common approach to security among Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will take some real compromises on alsides. This time, Tehran’s words were thoughtful and moderate. That’s nice. But one cannot help but wonder what substance Tehran is willing to put on the table to demonstrate how cooperative with neighbors it is willing to be.

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