Saturday, April 18, 2009

Iranian-Israeli See-Saw

The illusion that American relations with Iran constitute a separate issue from American relations with Israel must be dispelled if the American ship of state is not to founder on the shoals of Mideast affairs. To achieve a measure of Mideast peace and justice that will be conducive to moderating radicalism, preventing Israel from starting a war, preventing Iran from fomenting insurgency, stabilizing the international hydrocarbon market, and making the world safe for international trade will require that Washington come to grips with the reality that its relations to Israel and to Iran are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps a better analogy is the see-saw, with the U.S. balancing in the middle trying to balance Israel and Iran, who are jumping up and down on the two ends screaming both at each other and at the U.S.

I am hardly suggesting that this analogy represents reality. Today, the U.S. is seated firmly at the Israeli end, smirking like the Cheshire Cat, with the predictable result that the whole region is polarized and destabilized—because no other actor has the courage or foresight to occupy the middle all alone, with the possible exception of Turkey.

But I am suggesting that this analogy should be the goal for Washington decisionmakers because it represents the route to Mideast progress. Whatever the cold truth about European Jewish colonization of Palestine three generations ago (see Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine), Israel exists. Whatever the paranoia about Shi’ite radicalism, Iran exists. Israel wants security; Iran wants respect and influence. Complicating affairs, both countries also want a good deal more, indeed more than either deserves or can possibly have without provoking backlash. Only in the context of the other side’s legitimate concerns and illegitimate desires can the legitimate concerns of the first side be addressed and the illegitimate desires of the first side be contained.

Washington needs to—and indeed appears to be starting to--develop the maturity to ignore the hypocritical propaganda of which each side is so fond so it can devise a balanced approach. One case in point: for leaders of Israel, which has colonized Palestine and spent the better part of the last three decades trying to colonize Lebanon, to accuse Iran of having colonial aspirations in the Arab world, would, in less serious circumstances, be laughable.

In order to balance on the Iran-Israel see-saw, Washington needs to stand in the center. In the process of groping its way toward that position, a number of questions heretofore perhaps overlooked will beg to be answered:

1) Perfect state security being impossible, how much security will it take to convince Israel to live in peace with its neighbors?

2) How can Israel be granted that amount of security in circumstances that place the Israeli population within its legal 1967 borders and allow the Palestinian people to have a homeland sufficient in scope and contiguity to constitute the basis for a viable standard of living that will leave the population resistant to external radicals?

3) How much security will it take to make Iran feel comfortable?

4) How much participation in regional affairs and influence over regional affairs will it take to satisfy the appetite of Iran as a very self-conscious emerging regional power?

Asking these questions about Iran and Israel leads to very different policy than is generated by the questions currently in vogue. Question 1 implies that no state can demand perfect security, because that simply means perfect insecurity for all the rest. Question 4 is very different than asking how severely Iran will have to be punished to force it to follow Western dictates.

Once such questions based on the assumption that the goal is to balance the aspirations of the two sides are brought center-stage, the foreign policy community can begin to devise specific policies. The critical insight is the need for balance.

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