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Frank Talk About Iran

Iran’s participation in two rounds of official talks with the United States, the first such contacts in 27 years, could be a sign that the long-awaited thaw is finally underway in the Islamic Republic’s troubled relations with the West. If it is true, as Tehran’s leaders say, that Iran is prepared to help America stabilize Iraq — much as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai says Iran is helping in his country — then we might be seeing the first indications of a new, more pragmatic Iran.

On the other hand, Iran’s insistence this week that it will not even consider suspending its illegal uranium enrichment program, despite the prospect of new and harsher United Nations sanctions, could be a signal that the mullahs remain as ideologically inflexible and implacable as ever. The issuing of Iran’s uncompromising declaration on the eve of a high-level visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and less than a week after IAEA inspectors visited a new Iranian nuclear plant in Arak, piles insult on top of the regime’s defiance.

And that is just the trouble in attempting to construct a sensible policy toward Iran right now: that the mullahs’ regime is so dreadfully difficult to read. Signs of pragmatism and flexibility alternate with signs of ideological rigidity and fanaticism, often within days of each other and sometimes from the mouth of the same individual leader. Iranian diplomats talk sweetly at the United Nations and in European capitals, insisting that their nation’s nuclear program is aimed only at civilian energy purposes, yet they continue to defy U.N. resolutions, pursue illegal technologies and hide essential pieces of their project. They insist that they represent no threat to the stability of the region or the world, yet their president continues to spew forth genocidal threats against the sovereign nation of Israel. They ask to be taken seriously and shown respect as a world power, even as they stage international conferences to deny the undeniable truth of the Holocaust.

The extreme, erratic nature of the regime’s behavior and the gravity of its threats make it impossible to sit back and hope for the best. And yet, all the options currently in view are bad ones. Sanctions aimed at bludgeoning Tehran into backing down on its nuclear threat have not worked so far. Harsher sanctions are now being discussed by the Security Council, but the process is slow and cumbersome, and time is running short.

To some minds, the most extreme option, the military one, seems the most prudent. And yet military action — even if successful — would almost certainly bring catastrophic results: devastating Iranian counterattacks on Israel and American interests, radical destabilization of the region, weakening of moderate and pro-Western regimes, an explosion of anti-American and anti-Israel rage throughout the Muslim world that would make current tensions look like a love fest. Even advocates of military action admit that its consequences would be almost too awful to contemplate; their only justification is that allowing Iran to go nuclear would be worse.

All the more reason to respond with outrage, tinged with despair, at the disclosure, reported by Marc Perelman in this week’s Forward, that Iran sought four years ago to reach rapprochement with America. The offer, detailed in an upcoming book by the respected Iran expert Trita Parsi of Johns Hopkins University, reportedly included readiness to negotiate compromises on the nuclear and Israeli-Palestinian issues. It was rebuffed by the rigid ideologues of the Bush administration.

Parsi argues that the Islamic regime has never been as ideologically driven as others claim. Like most governments, it has a rational decision-making process through which it pursues its interests as it perceives them. Its interests and goals are far from those of America, much less Israel; still, a rational combination of carrots and sticks, of toughness combined with diplomatic give-and-take, could achieve manageable understandings that might be a basis for coexistence. That approach may well be guiding the Bush administration now, as it engages the Iranians and seeks common ground on matters of joint interest, beginning with Iraq.

That could be good news for world peace, but bad news for Israel. A new report issued this week by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank that advises Jerusalem on strategic planning, argues that Washington might be moving toward a grand bargain with Tehran that reaches compromise understandings in areas of sharpest disagreement — but ignores Israeli interests. Israel has been working until now from the assumption that its interests vis-a-vis Iran are the same as America’s and the West’s, and that its essential task is to convince Western governments of that truth. According to Reut, the interests of Israel and the West may not overlap as much as Israel would like. To America and much of the West, Iran represents a disruptive element that can seriously upset regional and world order. To Israel, Iran represents an existential threat.

Reut’s conclusion is that Jerusalem must begin speaking to Washington frankly about the areas where the two nation’s interests converge and where they do not. Israel must focus its efforts on ensuring that America does not take Israel for granted, or ignore it altogether, as contacts with Iran proceed.

Events have proven repeatedly over the past quarter-century that Iran is capable of doing business with Israel when it sees that as in its interest. Israel, no less than America, must begin searching for that bottom line.

The same might be said of America’s misadventure in Iraq, which appears to be moving toward some sort of less-than-victorious denouement. Here, too, Israel must assess its strategic needs in light of the chaos in Iraq, and sit down for some straight talk with its American ally, as opinion columnist Yossi Alpher argues on the opposite page.

This will require nimble, open-minded tactics on the part of Israel’s friends in America. It is in Israel’s interests to ensure that Washington is under pressure to lean on Iran with every available tool, in order to rein in its mischief-making, its nuclear ambitions and its continued backing of terrorism. Equally important, however, is to make sure that realistic goals are set, that doors are left open and that our side knows how to recognize when it has won.


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