Analysis & Opinions - Agence Global

U.S.-Iranian Leaders’ Dazzling Opportunity

| September 21, 2013

The positive possibilities that could emanate from the escalating signs of a direct Iranian-American engagement are dazzling in their intensity and historic in their scope. Rarely in modern history has the Middle East region experienced such a hopeful moment as this, when one major diplomatic shift towards productive American-Iranian relations could positively impact half a dozen conflicts in the region.

The most fascinating question for me now is not what triggered both leaderships’ shift towards a more conciliatory diplomatic posture. My question is why this did not happen years earlier, and why both sides did not explore the other’s seriousness about engaging constructively and resolving the points of contention between them and their allies.

The “allies” dimension is critical, because the United States and Iran actually have few if any real bilateral threats that should cause them to act so aggressively to each other. American positions on Iran are driven very much by the concerns of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other allies that fear Iran for their own reasons; Iran’s objections to America’s Mideast policies often derive from Washington’s posture to Iranian allies Syria and Hezbollah, which itself is heavily shaped by Israeli and Saudi concerns. Since the politically violent Iran-United States relationship has directly exacerbated conflicts across the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Yemen and others), conversely improved American-Iranian relations could significantly ease these tensions and violent conflicts.

This is an urgent goal that should be pursued diligently, and it is doable because the issues at hand are easily resolvable. Iranian-American tensions, aggressive rhetoric, sanctions and threats have clouded the underlying core reality that Iran’s nuclear industry is not really what this dispute is all about; it is the excuse that Americans, Israelis, Saudi Arabians and others use to try to contain Iran’s role in the region. The world has known for some years that an agreement on Iran’s nuclear industry can be reached which allows it to exercise its right to fully enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, while adhering to international inspections and safeguards against producing a nuclear bomb. (International inspections that Israel, by the way, still refuses to accept for its nuclear sector. The intense American commitment to enforcing international norms on weapons of mass destruction that we have just witnessed in Syria is not applied to Israel for reasons we would like to hear John Kerry explain one day when he has a moment to reflect on this double standard.)

Iran has repeatedly stated that it does not want or plan to make a nuclear bomb. Many people in the United States and Israel do not believe this. So why did they not test Iran’s credibility on this more directly years ago, by entering into a negotiation to produce the kind of framework accord that would meet the concerns and needs of both sides? Years of Israeli-American-directed threats and sanctions on Iran did not change Iran’s nuclear industry development, but rather only accelerated them. Years of Iranian defiance and in-your-face provocations, and its insistence on being treated with respect and diplomatic-legal equity, did not lessen global pressures on Tehran, but only intensified them.

Now, both sides speak of “mutual respect” as a central principle of dealing with the other and addressing the issues that separate them through constructive negotiations, rather than with bombast and threats. Perhaps they both realized that their strategies were not working, and potentially could lead to regional warfare of incalculably bad consequences (e.g., over Syria or Israeli nuclear concerns). Perhaps wiser minds in both capitals realized that United States-Iran tensions were eminently solvable temporal political issues rather than profoundly complex existential identity or territorial issues (as the Palestine-Israel conflict is, by contrast).

Whatever the reasons for the change in tone and negotiating policies, it is urgently important now to succeed in shaping a new American-Iranian relationship that can impact on many regional conflicts directly, positively, substantively and quickly. The allure of a “grand bargain” in which Iran and the United States reach agreement simultaneously on issues of nuclear capabilities, sanctions, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and other related matters is more alluring than realistic. More likely now is the scenario that probably has already started -- a cascade of conflict-resolution initiatives following the Russian-American agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons that might see an American-Iranian rapprochement followed by Saudi-Iranian normalization that would immeasurably improve conditions in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine for starters.

We should avoid the temptation of pursuing this potentially new positive phase of Iranian-American relations by simply perpetuating our ideological allegiances and needling the other side for their knuckleheaded policies of the past. Better to acknowledge that both the United States and Iran have shifted their rhetoric, for reasons they will explain in due course. The zealous and fearful warmongers in both capitals, and in Israel and Riyadh, seem sidelined for the moment, as more rational leaders try a better approach that could generate a win-win outcome for all concerned.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

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For Academic Citation: Khouri, Rami..“U.S.-Iranian Leaders’ Dazzling Opportunity.” Agence Global, September 21, 2013.