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Get Tehran inside the tent

Authors: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
December 6, 2007
International Herald Tribune

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The recently released National Intelligence Estimate undermines the Bush administration’s assertion that Iran is seeking immediate acquisition of the bomb for aggressive purposes.

But even if the United States does not face the prospects of a war with Iran, it must still confront the challenge of taming a rising power. And it is here that the Bush grand strategy only exacerbates the problems in the Middle East, leading to further instability and disorder.

In a return to its past, Washington took a page out of its early Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, when Western powers successfully frustrated Moscow’s expansionist designs. By directly projecting its own power and creating a broad-based Arab alliance, the Bush administration thought it could check - and if possible reduce - Iran’s influence.

Accordingly, the United States increased pressure on the Islamic Republic by building up its naval presence in the Gulf and engineering a series of United Nations sanctions against Iran for its nuclear violations. The administration also rallied Arab support against Iranian policies in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

Through a series of regional meetings and conferences, beginning with the meeting at Annapolis, the administration is also seeking to rejuvenate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a means of refocusing regional energies on Iran.

This new strategy for containing Iran is based on mistaken assumptions, beginning with the fallacy that Iran can be compared to the Soviet Union and that the early Cold War model is applicable to today’s Middle East.

The first problem that the United States will encounter is that although its Sunni allies may have disdain for Iran, they also hold in contempt the Shia-dominated government of Iraq.

This leaves the U.S with the dilemma of how to work with a pro-Iran Shia government while also building up a regional alliance with Sunni Arab states. A confrontation between the United States and Iran will inevitably play itself out in Iraq, further destabilizing that hapless nation.

Moreover, the notion that there is an Arab consensus against Iran is a misreading of the region’s temperament. To be sure, states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with their Shia minority problem do fear Iran’s influence. Yet smaller Gulf emirates such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates enjoy extensive economic ties with Iran, and their primary fear is that escalating tensions between United States and Tehran will damage their relations with Iran.

Far from participating in a wall of containment against the Islamic Republic, many Arab regimes will asses their capabilities and vulnerabilities, shape alliances and pursue their interests on the premise that they are susceptible to Iran’s influence.

Even the assumption that a revival of the Middle East peace process is the lynch-pin to containing Iran is problematic.

Washington believes that resumed diplomacy between Israel and its neighbors will assuage the Arab street and rally Arab governments behind the United States. But the current state of Palestinian and Israeli politics will not support the necessary compromises for a credible breakthrough.

For an administration that relies to so great an extent on its reading of history to shape policy, its grasp of recent Middle East history is curiously inadequate. The last time the Unites States rallied Arab support to contain Iran, in the 1980s, it succeeded in radicalizing the political culture to the extent that it nurtured Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Whereas during the Cold War confronting communism meant promoting capitalism and democracy, in the Middle East version it will mean promoting Sunni militancy.

Instead of focusing on reviving a shattered balance of power, the United States would be wise to aim for regional integration and fostering a framework where all powers see it in their interests to preserve the status quo.

Iran, as the National Intelligence Estimate noted, is hardly the radical power determined to upend the regional order. Iran is an unexceptionally opportunistic state seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood.

The task is to conceive a situation in which Iran would want to be contained - in other words, one in which it would see benefits in limiting its ambitions and abiding by prevailing norms.

Dialogue, compromise and commerce, as difficult as they maybe, are a means of providing Tehran with incentives to commit itself to regional stability. Instead of militarizing the Gulf and forming up shaky alliances on Iran’s periphery, Washington should move toward a local security system featuring all the regional actors.

Engaging Iran and regulating its rising power within an inclusive regional security architecture would present the best way of addressing the concerns of America’s Arab allies, stabilizing Iraq and even giving a new direction to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

A regional integration strategy in which all the states of the region are invested is more sustainable, and its maintenance will tax U.S. resources least. Ultimately, security for both Arabs and Israelis will be more achievable if Iran is part of the region and is vested in its stability rather than excluded from it.

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