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Peace Now: Too Much Ahmadinejad on the Brain

About 6,000 pro-Israel activists are in D.C. this week for the annual AIPAC policy conference. Among other things, they’re pushing for tougher sanctions against Iran.

At the same time, the dovish Americans for Peace Now is out with a new statement calling for engagement with Tehran. The contrast to the typical line from AIPAC activists is stark, but APN’s spokesman says the timing of the release was a coincidence.

One of the parts that stands out is APN’s assertion that the United States “must end its dogmatic and myopic focus on President Ahmedinijad.” Read on for the full statement:

The Challenge of Iran

For many years Iran’s leaders have espoused virulently anti-U.S., anti-Israel positions, complemented by reckless moral and financial support for extremists and terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah. The threat posed by Iran has grown over the past decade, as that country has tenaciously pursued a nuclear program and the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The rise to power of current President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad – arguably the most anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Iranian leader in history – has heightened this threat. From the day he was elected, Ahmedinijad has taken an explicitly confrontational stance with the international community regarding the nuclear issue, making clear his determination to fully develop Iran’s nuclear capability, including developing a full “fuel cycle” that would enable Iran to develop nuclear weapons. He has coupled this policy with repeated threats to destroy Israel.

Israel cannot ignore the threat posed by Iran to its security and stability in the entire region. Nor can the U.S. A belligerent Iran armed with nuclear weapons represents a dangerous and alarming scenario – one that the international community must exert all efforts to avoid.

The Failure of Current U.S. Policy

We believe that current U.S. policy toward Iran – focusing almost exclusively on sanctions and saber-rattling – is non-constructive and potentially counterproductive, in terms of both Israeli and U.S. interests. We believe that in pursuing its present course, the U.S. is squandering valuable time – time Iran is exploiting to continue developing its nuclear program.

Experience in the region demonstrates that sanctions alone are not likely to do the job. What is necessary for an effective policy is to combine sanctions with diplomacy, as the Iraq Study Group recommended. A broader strategy that included carrots as well as sticks worked with Libya; a similar approach should be developed with respect to Iran. Following the first Gulf War, the U.S. imposed far-reaching sanctions against Iraq – sanctions that had a terrible impact on the civilian population but completely failed to mobilize the Iraqi people against the government of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. has already maintained strong sanctions against Iran for years, with little or no impact on Iran’s determination to develop its nuclear capacity. Even in the West Bank and Gaza, where the U.S. and international community imposed crippling sanctions in the wake of last year’s election victory by Hamas, recent polling (January 2007) found that support for Hamas, while declining slightly, remains strong, and nearly 45% of Palestinians blame Israel and the U.S. for the current crisis, while only 21% blame Hamas.

As for the military option, threats of pre-emptive military action – by Israel or the U.S. – to stop Iran’s nuclear program, are reckless and counterproductive. Such action would be of questionable efficacy and entail potentially catastrophic unintended consequences. Even under the most optimistic scenarios offered, it is clear that military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites would be of limited value, at best setting back Iran’s nuclear program but not eliminating it. At the same time, such strikes would almost certainly have undesirable consequences, including possible retaliatory attacks by Iran against Israel, against available U.S. targets like U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and against other targets in the region, carrying with it the possibility of setting off a regional war. In the aftermath of a U.S. attack, Iran could also be expected to intensify its destabilizing role in the region, including in Syria and Lebanon, thus increasing the threat to Israel on its immediate borders.

Some have suggested that an alternative strategy would entail U.S. military strikes against civilian targets – e.g., roads, bridges, power plants – in order to send a message to the Iranian regime and to mobilize the Iranian people to oppose their own government. However, such a strategy would not only open the door to all of the unintended consequences associated with a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, including retaliation against Israel, it would also put the U.S. in a very difficult position vis à vis its allies in Europe and the Middle East, whose support the U.S. needs if any strategy toward Iran, military or non-military, is to succeed. Images of suffering civilians would quickly overtake and render null and void, in the mind of many in the region and around the world, any political rationale for the strikes, and at the same time likely eroding support for any subsequent U.S. efforts to pressure Iran. Far from persuading the Iranian public to oppose their government, military attacks on Iran are most likely to generate intense nationalistic support for the most extreme policies of the Ahmedinijad regime

Finally, the U.S does Israel no favor by stubbornly maintaining unilateralist policies in this arena: the Bush Administration has spent the greater part of the past six years pursuing unilateralist policies that are responsible, in large part, for launching the current debacle in Iraq and the instability sweeping the region.

The Way Forward: Constructive, Limited Engagement

The national security interests of both Israel and the U.S. are best served by the U.S. adopting a constructive, proactive approach in dealing with Iran. What is needed is a pragmatic approach focused on achievable goals. It is time to stop thinking in terms of non-negotiable policy goals such as regime change, good-and-evil leaders, zero-sum politics, and particularly any policy of U.S. first-strikes against Iran. In short: it is time for direct, U.S.-led diplomacy and engagement with Iran, including:

• Adopting a policy of limited, constructive engagement. Continuing the current U.S. policy toward Iran, consisting exclusively of threats and sanctions, will only further perpetuate U.S. inaction on Iran. The time has come to instead adopt a carefully crafted policy of limited, constructive engagement. Together with the Europeans and other relevant parties, the U.S. should develop a basket of meaningful diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks sufficient to persuade Iran to halt further development of its nuclear program. Such a policy, if successful, will require compromises by both Iran and the international community. Iran must relinquish what it views as its sovereign right to pursue a full-fledged nuclear program and agree to intrusive oversight and inspections. At the same time, the U.S. and international community will likely have to accept that Iran will maintain a non-militarized nuclear program.

• Enhancing bilateral relations. The U.S. must end its dogmatic and myopic focus on President Ahmedinijad. Ahmedinijad is only one player on the Iranian political stage, brought to power in no small part by U.S. policies that undercut the more moderate leaders who preceded him. Today, by making him the sole focus of U.S. policy, the U.S. is in effect enhancing his status and increasing his power – even as there is growing evidence of popular dissatisfaction with Ahmedinijad, based on his poor performance in the domestic political arena. A more enlightened, self-interested policy would recognize that there are other important actors on the Iranian political stage, both in and out of government. The U.S. and the international community should work together to engage these actors, marginalizing Ahmedinijad and bolstering the more moderate voices in Iran, making clear that better leaders could deliver more to their people and improve Iran’s relations with the international community.

• Enhancing regional diplomacy. The threat Iran poses to the region is in large part linked to Iran’s ongoing influence and interference in various countries of the Middle East. In particular, Iran’s influence in Syria, through which it supplies Hezbollah, and in Lebanon, from which Hezbollah threatens Israel and where it is playing an overtly destabilizing role in domestic politics, are of particular concern. Similarly, Iran’s role in Iraq, bolstered by Syria’s non-cooperation in securing its border with Iraq, poses a serious threat to U.S. interests. An enlightened policy toward Iran would include active efforts to chip away at Iran’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. Improving U.S.-Syria relations, and in particular making progress toward Syria-Israel peace, could remove several important cards from Iran’s hand. Similarly, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts would also strengthen other regional actors vis à vis Iran, giving them a stronger hand to deal with Iran’s destabilizing behavior within their own borders.

• Reaching out to Iranian civil Society. Iran is a country with a strong civil society in the areas of academia, non-governmental organizations and the media. As in the context of civil society dialogue between the U.S. and USSR before the fall of the Soviet Union, serious dialogue between civil society organizations of the United States and Iran could be helpful in building an understanding that the development of nuclear weapons and other belligerent policies can only hurt Iran. Similarly, U.S. interests can be served by further U.S. understanding of Iranian perceptions of their own national interests as the U.S. develops its policies toward Iran.

There is no guarantee that such a policy will succeed, but for the sake of both Israel and the U.S., we believe it is critical to try.

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