The Case for Talking to Tehran


By Trita Parsi

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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Israel is in state of strategic paralysis. Its longstanding policy on Iran — depict Tehran as a global threat, pressure Washington to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and evade an American-Iranian dialogue — has been dealt a severe blow by the recently released National Intelligence Estimate.

The Iran policy Israel has pursued to date must now be put aside and a genuine effort must be made to develop a Plan B that recognizes the new strategic realities in the region. A broad diplomatic opening between Washington and Tehran is increasingly likely, and it is a distinct probability that an American-Iranian deal will entail some level of enrichment on Iranian soil. Arab states can be expected to step up efforts at rapprochement in order to avoid lagging behind the United States in warming up to Iran, making a policy of containing and isolating Tehran more and more difficult to pursue.

Israeli interests, therefore, would best be served by Jerusalem throwing its weight behind genuine diplomacy with Tehran in order to ensure that it is not left out of an American-Iranian deal.

Momentum for broader diplomacy with Iran is clearly growing in the United States. Even prior to the release of the National Intelligence Estimate, Democratic presidential candidates began recognizing the American people’s exhaustion with the Bush administration’s policy toward Iran. Hawkish statements on Iran are being interpreted by the electorate as a continuation of a discredited neoconservative foreign policy outlook.

A number of presidential hopefuls, including Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have boldly declared their preference for unconditional talks with Tehran. This is unprecedented: Never before has Iran bashing carried so much political cost.

Regionally, Arab states have sensed the pendulum swinging in Iran’s favor, while recognizing Washington’s inability to swing it back. Accordingly, they are carefully adjusting their positions on Tehran.

Though highly wary of their giant neighbor going nuclear, the Arab states are more fearful of being left to face a nuclear Iran alone. So improving ties with Tehran in the wake of a likely American-Iranian thaw is the strategically wise thing to do.

Last week Egypt sent a high-level delegation to Tehran for the first time since 1979. Earlier this month Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to address the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Qatar. And last week, Saudi Arabia invited Ahmadinejad to participate in the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, another first for an Iranian leader.

The idea, therefore, of an American-Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance being formed to counter Iran’s rise — apparently a key impetus for the Annapolis summit — seems more farfetched than ever.

In challenging these regional developments, Israel is standing increasingly alone. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has apparently recognized as much, telling his Cabinet ministers last weekend to “stop giving statements on Iran and the American intelligence report.” Olmert’s remarks reportedly came in response to Public Security Minister Avi Dichter’s public attack on the National Intelligence Estimate, something the prime minister told to his Cabinet did “not contribute to the campaign [against Iran] or our relations with the White House.”

Indeed, Israel will not have many backers in the United States publicly pushing for a more bellicose approach toward Tehran. The Europeans may sound tough, but in reality, Europe has drawn a big sigh of relief over the National Intelligence Estimate.

The reality is that Israel’s Iran policy is now dead, no matter how hard some Israeli politicians try to keep it on life support.

But is there any Plan B that can compel Iran to shift its hard line on Israel? The short answer is yes.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran’s position on Israel is not ideologically driven. Though the ideological component of Iran’s foreign policy is undeniable, it is secondary to Iran’s geostrategic considerations

Iran’s harsh rhetoric on Israel has only been translated into actual policy when Tehran deemed that its ideological and strategic imperatives coincided. When these two pillars of Iran’s foreign policy have clashed — as they did in the 1980s, when the Jewish state made many efforts to get Iran and the United States back on talking terms — Iran’s geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed.

Today, Tehran perceives its ideological and strategic imperatives as being aligned with regard to the Jewish state. The only factor that can rearrange these forces is a larger American-Iranian arrangement in which Iran can gain political reintegration into the region in return for significant changes in its foreign policy — including on Israel.

The Iranians recognize that no sustainable shift in American-Iranian relations can be achieved without significant changes to Iran’s posture toward Israel. This was made clear in an offer Iran made to the United States in 2003 in which the Iranians indicated a readiness to end all support for Islamic Jihad and Hamas, pressure the Palestinian groups to stop using violence against Israel, turn Hezbollah into a solely political organization, and sign onto the Saudi peace initiative first floated in 2002. In return, Tehran wanted recognition of Iran’s security interests in the region and an end to American efforts to isolate Iran.

Given the right circumstances, Tehran was ready to adopt a “Malaysian profile” on Israel. Much like Malaysia, Iran would be an Islamic state that did not formally recognize Israel and would occasionally criticize Israeli policies, but would refrain from directly confronting Israel. Iran would get out of Israel’s hair in return for an end to Israeli pressure on the United States to isolate and contain Iran.

The proposal was communicated to Israelis by Iranians on numerous occasions, including at a Pentagon-funded conference in Europe in early 2003. At the conference Mohsen Rezai, the former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, engaged in a question-and-answer session with Israelis and discussed a strategic realignment of American-Iranian relations. The gist of Rezai’s plan was to work out a modus vivendi regarding the Israeli-Iranian standoff.

For Iran, this was a way to decouple American-Iranian relations from the Israeli-Iranian rivalry. As Reza Dehshiri, a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official, said in late 2004: “In the first year of the revolution, we didn’t recognize Israel, yet we had diplomatic relations with the U.S…. And when necessary, Israel could trade with Iran via the United States. This would be a temporary solution since we cannot recognize Israel at this time…. Israel would in practice be able to reach its goals, and Iran would in practice not oppose Israel’s policies in the region.”

Neither the United States nor Israel, however, responded to the proposal. Though Iran’s pragmatists have suffered greatly since 2003, and though Ahmadinejad is no Khatami, the “Malaysian profile” is still viable. Iranians do not speak about it publicly, since neither Israel nor the United States has shown much interest in it, but officials in Tehran remain convinced that a final deal with the United States will necessitate a change in Iran’s posture on Israel along the lines of a “Malaysian profile.”

A signal from Israel that it supports American-Iranian talks would strengthen the hands of Tehran’s pragmatists and compel Iran’s cautious supreme leader to rein in his more aggressive and ambitious subordinates. Shifting toward a Plan B would also enable Israel to avoid friction with Washington over Iran while achieving changes in Iranian policy that Israeli efforts to date have never even come close to obtaining. If Israel waits too long, however, it may be left out of the deal.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States” (Yale University Press).

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