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>> The Daily Star (Lebanon)


The Daily Star (Lebanon) - September 21, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

The 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 a major diplomatic shift toward productive American-Iranian relations could impact positively on half a dozen conflicts in the region. The most fascinating question is not what triggered both leaderships’ shift toward 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 toward 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 toward Iranian allies Syria and Hezbollah, which itself is heavily shaped by Israeli and Saudi concerns.

Since the politically violent Iran-U.S. relationship has directly exacerbated conflicts across the region (in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Yemen and others), 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, Saudis and others use 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. (Israel by the way, still refuses to open up its nuclear sector to international inspections. The intense American commitment to enforcing international norms on weapons of mass destruction that we have just witnessed in Syria has not been applied to Israel, for reasons we would like to hear Secretary of State 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 U.S. 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 against Iran did not change the development of Iran’s nuclear industry, but rather only accelerated it. Years of Iranian defiance and in-your-face provocations, and Tehran’s insistence on being treated with respect and diplomatic-legal equity, did not lessen global pressures; in fact it 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 with incalculably bad consequences (for instance over Syria or Israeli nuclear concerns). Perhaps wiser minds in both capitals realized that U.S.-Iran tensions were eminently resolvable political issues rather than profoundly complex existential identity or territorial issues.

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 idea of a “grand bargain” in which Iran and the U.S. reach agreement simultaneously over issues of nuclear capabilities, sanctions, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and other related matters is more alluring than realistic. More likely now is a scenario that probably has already started – a cascade of conflict-resolution initiatives following the Russian-American agreement over 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 U.S. and Iran have shifted their rhetoric, for reasons they will explain in due course. The zealous and fearful warmongers in both countries, 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.

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