Time To Talk Detente With Tehran

By Oren Rawls

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.

Fact is, Iran is sitting in a rather good position right now, and we did a whole lot to put it there.

We took the Taliban off of Iran’s eastern border, then got rid of Saddam Hussein to its west. Whether we were justified in doing so is beside the point: We gave Tehran the opportunity to cause us trouble without leaving its own back yard, and the opportunity has most certainly been seized.

The troubles the Islamic Republic has been able to cause us extend far beyond its borders. Iran’s fingerprints are to be found in Israel’s spiraling two-front war in Lebanon and Gaza — and again, it has been our actions that have allowed Tehran’s long arm to reach across the Middle East.

We haven’t been willing, justifiably or not, to talk to either Hezbollah or Hamas, while Iran has been only too happy to oblige. Now that Syria is out of Lebanon and Israel out of Gaza — both moves we strongly applauded — Islamist gunmen wield a veto over stabilizing the situation, and their ears are pointed toward Tehran, not Washington.

In short, we’ve backed ourselves into Iran’s corner, and it’s about time we admitted as much.

How we get out of this mess, I’m not quite sure. I don’t pretend to know the true intentions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei, or whoever else is in charge in Tehran. At this point, though, we’ve left ourselves little choice but to figure out on what terms Iran would be willing to settle matters.

Capitulation to violence, some might say, is a reward for terrorism. And they just might be right. But so far our actions, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our inaction, in Lebanon and Gaza, have effectively accomplished the same thing, so it is a bit disingenuous to argue that negotiating a settlement is somehow of more benefit to the enemy.

Besides, there are several compelling reasons for sitting down with Tehran. The Islamic Republic considers both Al Qaeda and the Taliban to be terrorist groups. Al Qaeda is slaughtering American troops in Iraq, and the Taliban are increasingly menacing our forces in Afghanistan. The proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may be Arab in origin, but in a region where no score is ever left unsettled, there’s no reason the adage can’t be translated into Farsi.

Then there’s oil, which Tehran happens to have oodles of. Iran claims to have the second-largest proven oil and gas reserves in the world, and there’s the potential for much more once technological limitations are removed. In the long run we’re clearly better off not being reliant on Middle Eastern countries for our energy, but in the short run we could do worse than diversify our sources.

Will the prospect of economic ties with the United States be enough to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions? Till now Iran hasn’t bitten.

So next time we and the Europeans sit down to negotiate with Iran, how about we ask Tehran not just what it’ll take for it to give up the quest for nukes, but also what it’ll take for Iran to stay out of our geopolitical hair. Sure, Ahmadinejad will likely rant and rave with outrageous demands, but he’s not the guy that Khamenei’s actually been sending to negotiations in Vienna.

That would be Ali Larijani, who heads Iran’s powerful National Security Council. Whether he’s got the willingness and the power to strike a grand bargain remains to be seen. But there are indications that he might be someone we could work with.

Larijani reportedly backs the idea of Iran disengaging from activities against Israel in exchange for recognition of Tehran’s sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf and an end to Iran’s international isolation.

Few issues are as touchy in the Muslim world as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so it stands to reason that if Iran can adopt a pragmatic position on the Jewish state, dealing with our other entanglements — Iraq foremost among them — just might be doable.

To date, the guns-or-butter approach hasn’t made Iran any less of a threat to our interests. So we can foolishly continue to bang our heads on the same wall, in the naive hope that it will fall over, or we can acknowledge that our bargaining power over Iran is less than it was several years ago, and recalibrate our position accordingly.

Iran is a regional hegemon, and needs to be addressed as such. Particularly now, with the Middle East spinning violently out of control, we need to explore every possibility for detente — and we need not worry that our guns will rust in the meantime.

Oren Rawls is opinion editor and European bureau chief of the Forward.

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