After talking to several top diplomats and international security experts from different countries in a couple of meetings that I attended during the past two weeks, I am now more convinced than ever that the normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S. should be a top priority of the leaders of both countries if they wish to avert a military clash that could easily turn into a regional or international conflagration. These direct and comprehensive talks could also set a better understanding between them to work more effectively in bringing peace and stability in the crisis ridden region of the Middle East.
Focusing only on Iran's nuclear program as premise for confrontation with this country has practically deprived the U.S. to seek Iran's much prized assistance on some critical issues that both countries have shared interest such as the stability in the post-occupation Iraq and Afghanistan, peace and stability in the wider Middle East region following the Arab Spring’s upheavals, and preference for a 'soft landing' of revolutionary fervors in the region and especially if it spreads to Saudi Arabia with all consequential effects including on the world oil markets. Lack of diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. and their hostile policies toward each other during the past 33 years have placed a great burden on their national interests. Any open minded assessment of the regional developments would clearly reveal that both countries can benefit greatly if they cooperate.
However, there is a big hurdle for Americans and that is the question of Israel and its domineering influence in the U.S. politics. At present, there are constant threats by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Iran and to drag the United States into another regional war. The paranoia that has been created centers around Iran's nuclear program and the threats it imposes on Israel. Often this fact is ignored that Iran unlike Israel has no nuclear weapons and as a committed member of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has placed all its nuclear activities including the 16 existing nuclear sites under constant 24 hour monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In fact, in number of reports available including the ones by the U.S. intelligence community attests to the fact that there is "no evidence" of a nuclear weapons program in Iran.
Thus, the reason for targeting Iran's nuclear program should be found somewhere else. To some this is partly due to Netanyahu's cynical world view, while others believe that this policy aims to divert attention from mounting internal social and economic upheavals in Israel. Although majority of Israelis including many in the military and intelligence have stressed the importance of coordination with the U.S. especially with regard to Iran, Netanyahu still does not trust the U.S. and insists on an intransigent policy toward Iran. It is believed that Netanyahu is well aware of the fact that acceptance of the U.S. leadership would imply going under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and losing the privilege of being a power that answers to none when carrying its intransigent policies in the region.
The Palestinian question and finding a solution for this 60 years of tragedy has been a major international concern. This important issue is now almost forgotten with Netanyahu constantly harping on Iran's nuclear threat. The fact is that hardliners in Israel are planning to create a state from Jordan River to the Mediterranean that means that the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be annexed to Israel and the remaining Palestinians have to leave their country. Netanyahu is also accused of openly interfering in an American presidential election by not only favoring the republican candidate Mitt Romney over Obama but more importantly trying to shunt the U.S. into a war with Iran. Finally, raising the fear about Iran's nuclear program could also be a ploy to prevent any rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.. In that perception a thaw in the Iran-U.S. relations might develop into a friendship that could push Israel into the sideline losing its present privileged position in the U.S. politics.
Whatever the reasons might be behind Netanyahu and hardliners in Israel, it seems that the U.S. is not presently in a mood to yield to a new war in the Middle East. The Obama administration is taking credit that its policy toward Iran has been successful in many ways. It perceives that the sanctions are putting their toll on Iran's economy and more importantly saying that it succeeded in creating a coalition of countries, including some from leading Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries to impose sanctions and to vote against Iran at the IAEA. However, the important point is that the US administration has marked it's redline on the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, while Netanyahu insists on imposing redline on Iran's nuclear capability, a status that Iran has already achieved some years ago.
While having nuclear capability without seeking nuclear weapons, Iran has practically refuted all allegations regarding any nuclear weapons program. This could be a major factor, although not conceded in public pronouncements, in the U.S. to be inclined for talks with Iran, of course besides other objectives including crisis management during the period of post-occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan where Iran can provide some critical assistance. On the other side, Iran looks more than ever to be prepared for meaningful talks with the U.S. Gone is the time when the relations between Iran and America was forbidden and construed as relations in the context of the lamb and wolf story. That analogy belonged to the early days of the Revolution when there were concerns that the U.S. would attempt to restore its domineering position in Iran.
Of course, the situation is quite different now. Iran is a regional power in every sense that can engage the U.S. on equal footing. It is a country with young, educated and dynamic population of 78 million that has achieved great marks in science and technology; including in the nuclear, aerospace, cyber and other scientific fields, not to mention in the defense arena. These developments have created unprecedented sense of self confidence with the rise of national sentiments among Iranians. That national power base bestows Iranian leadership with a mandate to seek a comprehensive resolution of differences with U.S. if its legitimate rights in the nuclear field are recognized. Therefore, this opportunity should not be missed by Obama administration (or if Mitt Romney is elected as the next president); although, they have to overcome the persistent obstacles posed by Israeli radicals.
Professor Graham Allison from Harvard University has made a point on this issue in his recent article in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012). He says that "the Israeli factor makes the Iranian nuclear situation even more complex challenge for American policymakers than the Cuban missile crisis was". He also notes that negotiations during the Cuban missile crisis succeeded because "only two players were allowed at the main table."
Taking that experience for the future talks between Iran and the U.S., Washington should keep Israel and other powers out of its critical bilateral talks with Tehran. Of course, one can safely assume that once rapprochement is achieved between Iran and the U.S.; neither side would be inclined to pose threats against the core security interests of each other or their closest allies.
* Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.
For Academic Citation:
Nasser Saghafi-Ameri, "Time for Iran- U.S. Talks," Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, September 23, 2012.
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