Obama's Overtures to Iran
ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Daniel Brumberg
At Midnight on March 20, 2009, the Barack Obama administration launched into diplomatic orbit the USS Engagement. Using the occasion of the Persian New Year (Nowruz), the president invoked a spring of "new beginnings" to set out the enticing possibility of a normal relationship between Iran and the U.S.
Whether this turns out to be a historic moment, or yet another failed bid to move beyond a three-decade cold war, remains to be seen. It will take a huge dose of sustained political will in Tehran and Washington to overcome the many obstacles that await American and Iranian leaders.
Engagement of the kind that Washington proposes focuses on process, and on "symbolic incentives" designed to signal an empathetic grasp of a rival's deepest emotional concerns. The idea is to begin with small steps (such as New Year's greetings) and then move on to bigger ones, but without making any basic strategic concessions, and without defining - too clearly -- a strategic vision behind these steps.
And there's the rub. As I have learned in recent second track meetings, Iran's leaders are not eager to plunge into talks or exchanges without a sense of the end goal. But Tehran's concern clashes with the entire logic of a process-oriented approach that is supposed to eventually yield that very strategic vision.
If tactics are supposed to create a strategy, but the key players need a strategic vision from the outset, how can we solve this conundrum?
The problem becomes more acute when we consider the fears provoked by U.S.-Iranian engagement. Everyone knows that the Israelis are worried by such a prospect, since they fear that Iran is well on its way to producing nuclear weapons.
But Israeli fears are only one part of a bigger picture. When in Riyadh some weeks ago, Saudi leaders repeatedly told me, "engagement yes, marriage no." Like many of their Arab Gulf neighbors, the Saudis not only fret about Iran's heightened strategic influence in the region; they are also concerned about their own Shi'ite minority, whose leaders are pressing for equal rights in the Sunni-Wahhabi kingdom.
I heard a similar message last week from a leader of Jordan's Islamic Action Party. This spokesman for an Islamist organization that has often been unfriendly to American interests, warned against a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. By further opening the door to Shi'ite power, he said, a quick U.S. exit would produce a "disaster" for the region.
Washington is addressing such apprehensions in two ways. First, our top foreign policy officials, including Secretary of State Clinton, have tried to reassure Arab and Israeli leaders that the opening to Iran will not come at their expense. Second, we have assiduously avoided defining the strategic vision behind engagement. Tactics prevail because they make our diplomatic life a little easier (at least for the moment), and because we are not sure ourselves what the ultimate goal of engagement with Iran is.
The same could be said for Iran's leaders. Making a real peace with the U.S. would involve relinquishing a central tenet of the Islamic revolution. So, an engagement strategy involving relatively small steps is ok. But as soon as such steps start gelling into a larger strategic picture, the domestic, regional and global stakes increase for Iran's leaders, and for ours as well.
Both sides need a strategic vision, but both sides fear it. This is especially true for the Iranians. It's like the joke about the two old ladies sitting in a restaurant. "This food is terrible," the first says. "Yes," the other replies, "and the portions are too small!"
We will see some of this complex anxiety emerge as we dive into any major part of the engagement dish. That menu might soon include a plate of Afghanistan diplomatic kebab. After all, if there is one place where the US and Iran seem to share common interests (beyond Iraq), it is Afghanistan. There, the Taliban's forward march is scaring Tehran as much as Washington.
Could the outlines of a strategic vision emerge on this critical issue? Perhaps. But the Iranians are worried about all the talk in Washington over engaging the Taliban, even if the purpose is merely to divide the jihadists. What is more, Tehran's fears are not limited to Afghanistan. They are also worried about a US engagement of Syria, particularly if this leads to a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement.
Iran and the U.S. divorced thirty years ago. It will not be easy to get them to exchange engagement rings. They, their respective families and their neighbors are all nervous. Still, it's worth a try. But if either Washington or Tehran lacks the will or means to define the ultimate terms of a diplomatic marriage, their courtship will fizzle.
Daniel Brumberg is acting director of U.S. Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative and associate professor at Georgetown University.
Posted by: MichaelNJ | March 23, 2009 10:50 AM
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