First 100 Days: Obama, Iran and Richard Nixon
Here is a piece of advice for Barack Obama for dealing with Iran, one of the countries that will loom large in his presidency. Forget the way five of your predecessors dealt with the place. Take your cue from Richard Nixon and his 1972 breakthrough with China.
Just as Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, realized that a quarter of a century of isolating and weakening China had not served America’s interests, so Obama should acknowledge that 30 years of U.S. policy since the 1979 Iranian revolution has failed and that what is needed is a grand bargain, a shift as fundamental as the one Nixon achieved with China.
Those suggestions come from Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, a husband-and-wife team of independent experts who worked on Middle East policy on the National Security Council during George W. Bush’s first term in the White House.
A grand bargain would involve putting all the differences between the two countries on the table at the same time and resolve them as a package.
The list of differences is long. At the top of it is Iran’s nuclear program, which the U.S. suspects is geared to make nuclear weapons. (Iran denies this). Then there is Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two groups classified as “terrorist” by the United States. Under the Bush administration, Washington threatened military strikes, talked of regime change and imposed economic sanctions.
How likely is it that Obama will make a dramatic Nixon-in-China overture? Not very. For one, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is no Kissinger. And while Obama ran on a platform of change in the presidential election campaign, the man tipped to take charge of dealings with Iran, Dennis Ross, is an old-established Clinton-era Middle East negotiator with a widespread reputation in the area as a man with a pronounced pro-Israeli bias.
Fears about the Iranian nuclear program are rooted not so much in the belief that Iran, once it had the bomb, would use it against Israel — a suicidal move, given Israel’s nuclear arsenal and second-strike capability — but that it will kick off a nuclear arms race. Or that Iranian nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah.
In the view of Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar and author of “Treacherous Alliance, the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.”, this prospect is remote. “Israel has signaled that it would retaliate against any nuclear attack by hitting Iran — regardless of who attacked Israel – … if any of Iran’s proxies attacked Israel with a nuclear warhead, Israel would destroy Iran.”
Parsi believes, as do other Iran watchers, that Iran does not actually need — and says it doesn’t want — to build a nuclear bomb. Having the know-how to make a nuclear warhead is enough to act as a deterrent, shift the balance of power and whet the nuclear appetites of Arab states fearful of Iranian encroachment.
Their interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities was highlighted by a nuclear cooperation agreement signed on the last working day of the Bush administration by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed al Nahayan. The deal, similar to a U.S. agreement with India, has to be approved by Congress. If it is, can Saudi Arabia be far behind. Or Egypt?
And the question often asked about the Iranian program — why does a country rich in oil and gas need nuclear energy? — can be asked of these countries, too. Unlike Iran, the UAE will not enrich its own uranium and have its program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Still, mastering civilian nuclear know-how can be a first step to getting a bomb.
Being against nuclear non-proliferation is like being against motherhood but there are those who view the long-running debate over Iran’s nuclear program with a dash of skepticism. Take Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior researcher at Yale University who has written extensively about nuclear proliferation.
“Why should we consider it to be catastrophic if tomorrow Iran has nuclear weapons?” he said in an interview. “Today, there are nine countries known to possess nuclear weapons — the U.S., Britain, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea. What would change if Iran became the tenth? Whom would they bomb?”
Why would the fear of mutual destruction that kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from going to war against each other not work equally well in the Middle East?
On Obama’s first working day, the White House reissued his campaign pledge of “tough and direct diplomacy without preconditions” — a break from the Bush administration’s insistence that there could be no talks unless Iran first suspended its uranium enrichment program.
But according to a brief policy outline on the White House website, Washington will push the same carrot-and-stick package Iran has rejected for the past four years. Old wine in new bottles?
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. For previous columns, click here.