Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Call Tehran's Bluff

Iran, it seems, will replace insult with diplomatic finesse in an attempt to deflect Western pressure that is building to a dangerous climax. Much like the American shift from Bush/Cheney to Obama, Iran will now apparently promote a combination of a more reasonable face on the same old policies plus a willingness to negotiate the full range of international relations. Neo-con savagery will be replaced by diplomatic skill; the assumption that the opponent only understands the language of force will be replaced with the assumption that one might possibly be able to reason with the opponent.

This approach would make sense, and not just because the danger of Israeli aggression against Iran is very real. This approach also makes sense because in fact Iranian relations with the West go far beyond the nuclear obsession.

The potential exists for Iran to be drawn tightly into the international system.

1. The need for Iranian gas is urgent, not just for Pakistan and India but for Western Europe, now dangerously subject to Russian blackmail each winter.
2. The war between the West and independent Islam (i.e., that portion of the Muslim political world that demands the right to follow its own independent course) seems impossible to resolve either on its Iraqi or Central Asia fronts without the cooperation of Iran.
3. Persuading Israel to adopt the path of justice and moderation depends in great measure on persuading Iran to accept Israel’s existence. An extremist, racist, expansionist Israel both provokes and is provoked by an extremist, crusading Iran.

So Washington should embrace Iran’s new tactics and try to weave the strongest network of ties that it can. The more Iran becomes integrated with the rest of the world, the more benefits it derives, the more respect it receives, the less interest it will have in angering the West by building a few nuclear bombs that will almost inevitably be pitiful and backward in comparison with Israel’s stockpile. The larger Iran’s gas profits, the stronger will become the gas bureaucracy, which will argue against risking it all in a vain race to compete with Israel.

Gas exports will not trump national security, but the existence of such benefits of international cooperation will pave the way for Iran to buy into whatever new and more balanced regional security regime that Washington may be prudent enough to persuade Israel to accept.

All the major players are composed of multiple factions. Short of genocide, the extremist factions are not likely to be eliminated, but the factional balance—in the U.S., Iran, and Israel—is delicate. Skillful international diplomacy slowly constructing a mutually beneficial network of ties can marginalize the neo-con war parties so eager to profit from destruction.

If Iran announces willingness to negotiate, call its bluff. Respond to its complaints. When it offers a tidbit (e.g., a single visit to Arak or Natanz), express thanks, offer an equivalent response on some issue of concern to Iran, and push for a further step. Consider the potential bureaucracies (e.g., gas exporters) to which cooperation might give rise. Try to build momentum. Hostility has gained a lot of momentum over the last generation of Western insults, threats, and aggression. Reversing course won’t happen overnight; it will take commitment to build a cooperative relationship with Iran, to persuade Israel to become a good neighbor to those in its crowded neighborhood, and to create a regional security regime acceptable to rational moderates in both Iran and Israel. Iran took the first small step by allowing inspection of Arak. Iran took the second small step by allowing expanded inspections of Natanz. Iran took the third small step by slowing the rate of low-level uranium refinement. Iran took the fourth small step by announcing that it will present a plan for talks with the West. The White House is losing the initiative by remaining silent.

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