Dr. Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).
The Security Council is wrestling with the twin problems of giving life-support to the Israeli-Lebanese truce and preventing Iranian uranium enrichment beyond the August 31 deadline. Thus begs the question: Would either problem even exist today had the White House agreed to negotiate with Iran without any preconditions? Given the Bush administration’s declared interest in addressing the root causes of problems in the Middle East, the dysfunctional relationship between Iran and the United States deserves attention.
If Tehran and Washington had been on talking terms, it is unlikely that thousands of innocent Lebanese and Israeli civilians would have died. Whether or not Iran had a role in the July 12 Hezbollah attacks—a claim for which no evidence has been presented—a more open relationship between Tehran and Washington could have limited the escalation of the Lebanon conflict.
Even if Iran did have a role in Hezbollah’s attacks, negotiations with Washington would have compelled Tehran to refrain from such risky adventurism. If Iran did not lie behind the Hezbollah operation, which is more likely, then the West could have compelled Iran to use its influence with the Lebanese militants to end the conflict. In the past, the mere prospect of direct negotiations with the United States has on numerous occasions led Tehran to lend it a helping hand.
Such was the case in 1985, when Hezbollah hijacked TWA flight 847 to obtain the release of Shia guerrillas in Kuwaiti and Israeli prisons. The Iranians were seeking negotiations with the United States at the time and feared that Hezbollah’s untimely operation would undermine their interest. Israeli secret service intercepted a conversation between a leading Iranian figure and Iran's ambassador to Syria, in which the former urged the latter to pressure Hezbollah to release the hostages. The Iranian intervention secured the release of the hostages and prevented a deadly escalation.
The senseless fighting in Lebanon and Israel shows the shortcomings of Washington’s Iran policy. It is symptomatic of Washington’s broader approach to the Middle East, in which it chooses to see the region solely through the prisms of nuclear non-proliferation and democracy promotion instead of pursuing these goals by first creating conducive circumstances through stability and the just resolution of existing conflicts.
Washington’s approach to Iran has been limited to the question of enrichment at the expense of a broader geopolitical perspective that takes into account the wide range of challenges that Iran poses, including its role in Lebanon, its attitude towards Israel and its human rights violations. Instead, shortsighted policymakers in Washington have reduced the actual challenge posed by Iran to the question of whether Iran can or cannot operate 164 enrichment centrifuges.
In reality, the underlying problem is that Iran is an emerging power lacking sufficient political integration with not only its immediate neighbors, but more importantly, with the security guarantor of the region—the United States. Integration is necessary to ensure that Iran’s rise is peaceful. Isolating Iran, the route chosen by the Bush administration, complicates efforts to resolve the many problems Iran poses to the United States and Israel. Though Iran has to a large extent itself to blame for its isolation, it is noteworthy that all of its immediate neighbors enjoy better relations with Tehran than Washington does.
Washington’s betrayal of Lebanon’s democratic government—who the White House praised only months earlier as evidence of the success of its Iraq policy—put the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration’s other preferred lens; that of democratization as a one-size-fits-all solution to the region’s many problems. By rejecting Prime Minister Senora’s repeated pleas for an immediate cease-fire, the Bush administration has shown that its rhetoric about democracy was just that—empty slogans.
Abandoning Lebanon sent the peoples of the region the signal that America would only stand by Arab democracies to the extent that they were at peace with Israel. From the perspective of the Arab masses—true or not—such a condition does not differ from the parameters of America’s relations with the Arab dictatorships. They too are considered “moderate” only to the extent that they maintain an uneasy peace with Israel.
The unfortunate conclusion regional states may draw from this ordeal is that if Washington is not a reliable security provider, even to Arab democracies, then rearmament and nuclearization are the only remaining options. As such, the prisms through which Washington views the Middle East are making the region more dangerous for American allies and non-allies alike. This is hardly the way to help secure Israel.
To address the root causes of the conflicts in the region, Washington must venture beyond its enrichment fetish and its fixation with superficial elections. Tensions in the Middle East are born out of a region in geopolitical flux in which the only country capable of bringing stability no longer views that as a desirable goal. By ignoring the context of these conflicts and the United States’ responsibility in the region, the Bush administration risks making America a part of the problem rather than the solution.
In the case of Iran, as disagreeable as the values of its government may be, it is not Tehran’s rise or new confidence that is disturbing the nonexistent Middle East balance, but rather the Bush administration’s unwillingness to come to terms with the inescapable reality of Iranian power.
Washington now has an opportunity to rectify some of its previous mistakes. By encouraging the EU to accept Tehran’s invitation to negotiate the scope and extent of the enrichment suspension, headway can be made for a mutually acceptable formula prior to the August 31 Security Council deadline.
If the White House fails to do so, it will face a Council struck by conflict fatigue. Washington’s cooperation has been limited on resolving the crisis in Lebanon, and many of America’s allies are in turn reluctant to explore the sanctions path. The fear that this path is a slippery slope toward war still looms large in the minds of European and Asian leaders. Also, sanctions with teeth tend to bite both ways, and neither Europe nor China and Russia are eager to accept economic sacrifices when the issue can be resolved diplomatically by Washington joining the talks.
Washington’s best option is to give diplomacy a fair chance. By recognizing that the attainment of key American objectives—including peace in Lebanon and security for Israel—has been made all the more difficult by refusing unconditional negotiations and by solely viewing Iran through the enrichment prism, a critical and long-overdue step can be taken to address one of the root problems of the Middle East: America’s non-relationship with Iran.