Washington’s new policy towards Iran

The Bush administration will establish the first official United States diplomatic presence in Tehran before it leaves office, according to reports published last week. A US interests section in the Iranian capital would be the first step towards restoring full diplomatic ties severed since the 1979 hostage crisis amidst the tumult of the Islamic Revolution.

Senior Bush administration officials informed Tehran of the US offer after rumors began to circulate about it last summer, The Seattle Times reported (24 October). Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is said to view this move with favor. Although the final decision has not been taken by the US, the search is already underway for a diplomat to head the mission.

This is a remarkable turn of events. While the Bush administration seems to have moved away from threats to attack Iran, Israel is still keen on seeing that happen, as are some of its fanatical supporters in Washington. They certainly will do all they can to undermine any US-Iranian rapprochement.

For years, the region has been divided into two major currents. On one side are so-called “moderates” whose position depends directly on American financial, political and military sponsorship and indirectly on American hostility towards Iran and its expanding influence in the region. On the other hand the opposing current consists of Iran and its allies — dubbed “extremists” by the US — a club that includes Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Shia parties in Iraq and elsewhere.

“Moderates” which include the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Arab League — and the US likes to put Israel in this category as well — see Iran as a major strategic threat to the region. They accuse Iran of trying to spread its hegemony by supporting Shia groupings across the region. They also claim Iran supports “terrorism” and “extremists” who oppose what would otherwise have been a successful peace process with Israel.

Anti-Iranian propaganda in the US and from Israel has played up and often distorted Ahmadinejad’s statements about Israel (as well as his statements questioning the veracity of the Holocaust) to stoke fears that Iran intends to attack Israel. Concerns about Iran’s nuclear program have been exaggerated in the same style as the false claims about Iraqi weapons, and Iran has been subjected to increasing pressure and sanctions by Western powers demanding that it freeze even its entirely legal uranium enrichment activity.

If Iran is all the terrible things the US and its allies have claimed, why would the US even consider opening up to Tehran? The answer is simple: it would not be a policy of choice, rather it would be a pragmatic and belated recognition of reality. War with Iran under any circumstances would be disastrous. The US knows this and so it has effectively been ruled out. Israel, despite its bluster, is neither strong enough nor independent enough from the US to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran by itself. Hamas and Hizballah have both survived relentless and bloody efforts by Israel with American support to wipe them out, and Syria has survived the dangerous post-11 September 2001 period better than predicted.

In fact, the US-led efforts to weaken the “extremists” appear, if anything, to have achieved the opposite. American credibility and prestige have been severely damaged by its failed military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s in Gaza and Lebanon, while Iran has gained in stature.

Even a mainstream commentator like The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen urged, “It is time to drop the condition that Iran suspend enrichment before we talk” (23 October). Cohen urged a complete rethink of the US approach given that “Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knows how much Iranian power has grown in recent years through the US removal of its arch-enemy Saddam Hussein and the ushering of fellow Shiites to power in Baghdad. He knows how stretched the US is militarily. He knows how popular the nuclear program is domestically as a symbol of Iran’s regional ambitions. And he knows that Israel has the bomb.” The “lesson of the Bush years,” Cohen concludes, “is that dealing in illusions is unhelpful.”

An objective American assessment unclouded by distorted history, nationalism and prejudice would conclude that the only basis for enmity between the US and Iran has been US interference in that country’s affairs including overthrowing a democratic government, supporting the Shah’s hated regime, supporting Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran and fueling the bloody war that followed. Most of Iran’s actions even indefensible ones, like the hostage crisis, were reactions. Iran never tried to overthrow a US government. Iran never invaded America’s neighbors. Iran never stationed aircraft carriers off the US coast.

Iran will be an adversary of the US only as long as the US decides to keep following such unwise policies, which people see repeated time and again across the region (most recently with the overthrow of the elected Hamas-led Palestinian government). Even if the moderates’ claims against Iran were all true (and many of them are untrue or distortions of the truth), then hostility and escalation would still not be the right answer. Iran is an integral part of the region. It has legitimate interests and ambitions which it should be allowed to pursue legitimately and within balanced regional arrangements. That possibility should be tested in a calm and cordial atmosphere and reopening relations would be a good first step.

Those who insist on confronting and attempting to isolate Iran should reflect on Israel’s failure to shatter the steadfastness and determination of 1.5 million Palestinians caged in Gaza and subjected to a cruel and criminal blockade unprecedented in modern history. If so poor and weak a people cannot be subdued, how will 70 million Iranians be forced to submit to humiliation and harassment?

Iran –- and obviously its supporters in the region — no less than any “moderates” has an interest in a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its aspects, a region free of weapons of mass destruction, a stable and prosperous Iraq, and normal and open relations across the region. War, confrontation and domination from outside the region will never achieve those goals. Dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition might. Let it be tried as an alternative to military adventurism and diplomatic lawlessness.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.