Mission to Tehran
Published: January 16, 2009
For years, a debate raged among Middle East analysts on how connected the many conflicts in the region were. One side argued, in essence, that all roads led to Jerusalem. Solve the core problem — the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — and much of the tension elsewhere would dissipate. The other side countered that the Sunni-Shia split in Iraq, the revolutionary fervor in Iran, the sectarian stew in Lebanon and the sclerotic authoritarianism of Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia would be little affected by any deal over Palestine. Each issue required its own approach.
The debate is not over, but there is an emerging consensus for a third way. All the roads that used to lead to Jerusalem now lead to Tehran. Meet the Iranian challenge, it is said, and most everything else falls into place — Iraq (where Iran meddles with the Shia majority), Syria (with which it is closely allied), Lebanon (where it has vast influence over Hezbollah) and Palestine (where it equips and trains Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Through Tehran, every one of the major concerns in the region is connected to nearly every other one. Because of Tehran none can be solved in isolation. And if Iran goes nuclear, everything becomes hugely more problematic.
The best way to face up to Iran, according to the emerging consensus, is through a grand bargain that not only links ending Israeli settlement in the West Bank to halting nuclear proliferation, but also ties stopping planned American missile installations in Central Europe (which anger Moscow, needed as a partner for the deal) to stability and democracy in Lebanon. With the Iranian centrifuges continuing to spin, the Middle East cannot wait.
Beginning in July 2007, two of this country’s pre-eminent Middle East policy research institutions, both with close ties to the incoming administration, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, took the rare step of joining forces and asking 15 of their scholars to focus on the crucial challenges facing the next president. The results are collected in “Restoring the Balance,” a thoughtful and nicely structured collection of seven essays that examine the Iranian challenge and its many parts. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Council on Foreign Relations but had no involvement with this book.)
The assumption informing all the essays is that the Bush years have been a catastrophe. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have unwittingly increased Iranian power. Refusing to talk with Iran and downgrading relations with Damascus have kept Washington in the dark about those countries’ shifting internal forces. Insisting on elections among the Palestinians without realizing the strength of Hamas and then refusing to accept the results only added insult to injury.
So what do the contributors think the new administration should do? Vastly increase the role of diplomacy and thereby bring Russia aboard its Mideast initiatives. Cut the number of American troops in Iraq by as much as half within two years. Open direct dialogue with Tehran quickly. Don’t give up on counterterrorism, but remove it from its current central place. Foster reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas by, among other things, reducing demands on Hamas, and press Israel to end all construction in occupied lands even in existing settlements and in Jerusalem. All of this should be carried out through two special envoys, one for Iran and the other for the Israeli-Arab dispute.
Thus the grand bargain comes into view. Through direct, top-level negotiation, Washington gets Tehran to rethink its priorities. Russia, a key supplier to Iran, helps out. To woo Moscow, Bruce Riedel and Gary Samore suggest in their essay, the new administration should pull back from efforts at bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and from plans to install missile defenses in Europe.
Steven A. Cook and Shibley Telhami recommend other steps to reduce the influence of Iran. These include peeling Syria away from its alliance with Tehran by stepping up American relations with Damascus and getting Israel to return the Golan Heights through Turkish mediation; blunting the power of Hamas by bringing it into the Palestinian Authority fold and pressing for the removal of settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state; and pulling Lebanon away from Hezbollah by promoting the national unity government and seeking to involve it in peace talks with Israel. These essays were of course written before the Israeli military assault on Gaza that began in late December, a mini-war that indicates why the region is so volatile and that may or may not force a shift in thinking when it is over.
Gaza aside, the moves described in “Restoring the Balance” would mark a radical departure from current policy, which revolves around counterterrorism, the war in Iraq and refusal to deal with Syria, Iran and Hamas. But would they work? Only a foolish optimist would say yes. But that doesn’t mean that “Restoring the Balance” is foolishly optimistic. The essays display nuance and realism, despite small lapses. There are places where difficulties are skipped over. The description of the Arab League peace plan, for example, does not mention the centrality in the plan of the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, an issue of great contention for the Jewish state. Getting Hamas to agree to a cease-fire, Telhami and Cook blithely write, “will no doubt be challenging.” Talking with Hamas, it is said in another essay, runs counter to efforts to delegitimize terrorism, and “the new administration will have to confront how best to deal with this awkward reality.”
The Middle East is rich in awkward realities. Still, whether or not this plan will succeed, much of it will probably be attempted. In that sense, “Restoring the Balance” is a very useful and readable introduction to the thinking behind the coming shift.
Ethan Bronner is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The Times.