What We Can Learn From Britain About Iran
By VALI NASR and RAY TAKEYH
THROUGH the capture of and subsequent announcement that it would release
15 British sailors and marines, the Islamic Republic of Iran sent its
adversaries a pointed message: just as Iran will meet confrontation with
confrontation, it will respond to what it perceives as flexibility with
pragmatism. This message is worth heeding as the United States and Iran
seem to be moving inexorably toward conflict.
The timing of the Britons’ capture was no accident. The incident
followed the passage of a United Nations resolution censuring Iran for
its nuclear infractions, the dispatch of American aircraft carriers to
the Persian Gulf and the American sanctioning of Iranian banks. Although
the Bush administration has been busy proclaiming its increasingly
confrontational Iran policy a success, Tehran’s unsubtle conduct in the
Persian Gulf suggests otherwise.
marines were seized, they could have escalated the conflict by pursuing
the matter more forcefully at the United Nations or sending additional
naval vessels to the area. Instead, the British tempered their rhetoric
and insisted that diplomacy was the only means of resolving the
conflict. The Iranians received this as pragmatism on London’s part and
responded in kind.
The United States, meanwhile, has pursued its policy of coercion for two
months now, and one is hard-pressed to find evidence of success. Beyond
even the symbolic move of apprehending the British sailors, Iran’s
intransigent position on the nuclear issue remains unchanged. To
underscore that point, Iran has scaled back cooperation with the
International Atomic Energy Agency and released a new currency note
adorned with a nuclear emblem.
Moreover, although Iran has proved willing to talk to Saudi Arabia,
especially regarding Lebanon, it has yielded no new ground. In fact,
Saudi Arabia’s concerns, relayed to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali
Larijani, during his visit to Riyadh in January, went unanswered. And if
the March 10 meeting of neighbors in Baghdad was supposed to bring a
chastened Iran to the table, the opposite happened. Far from being
accommodating, Iran boldly asked for a timetable for the withdrawal of
American troops from Iraq. But the meeting was noteworthy in making a
show of Iran’s regional influence and its importance to the future of Iraq.
The United States faces a stark choice: it will have to either escalate
its confrontational policy or adopt a policy of engagement. Far from
arresting the Iranian danger, escalation would most likely present the
United States with new perils. Given the balance of power in the region,
a continued confrontational course with Iran would saddle the United
States with a commitment to staying in the Persian Gulf indefinitely and
deploying to other conflict areas in an environment of growing
radicalism. It would place the United States at the heart of the
region’s conflicts, leaving it all the more vulnerable to ideological
extremism and terrorism at home and abroad.
Beyond such concerns, a continued policy of confrontation will also
complicate America’s Iraq policy. Just as Iraqi Sunnis have cultural and
political ties with Sunni Arab states and look to them for support,
Iraqi Shiites trust and depend on Iran. An Iraq policy that allies the
United States with Sunni Arab governments to eliminate Iranian influence
in Iraq will be construed as biased against the Shiites. Such a policy
will not win the support of the Shiite-dominated government on which the
success of the new American strategy depends.
Since the United States entered Iraq in 2003, Washington has complained
about Iran’s meddling, and about its involvement with radical groups and
militias. Still, Iran, far more than any of the Sunni Arab regimes, has
also supported the Shiite-dominated government and the Iraqi political
process that brought it to power. If Iraq were to exclude Iran and seek
to diminish its regional influence, Iran would have no further vested
interest in the Iraqi political process, and it could play a far more
destabilizing role. Therefore, the current policy will not reduce the
Iranian threat to Iraq but rather increase it.
An American conflict with Iran would also undermine regional stability,
jeopardize the economic gains of the Persian Gulf emirates and inflame
Muslim public opinion. Persistent clashes with the United States will
radicalize the Iranian theocracy and, more important, the Iranian public.
Iran today sees regional stability in its interest. It abandoned the
goal of exporting its revolution to its Persian Gulf neighbors at the
end of 1980s and has since acted as a status-quo power. It seeks
influence within the existing regional power structure. It improved its
relations with its Persian Gulf neighbors throughout the 1990s, and in
particular normalized relations with Saudi Arabia. Iran supported the
stabilization of Afghanistan in 2001 and that of Iraq during the early
phase of the occupation. Conflict will change the direction that Iranian
foreign policy has been following, and this will be a change for the
worse and for the more confrontational.
A judicious engagement policy will require patience and must begin with
a fundamental shift in the style and content of American diplomacy. The
breakthrough in American-Chinese relations during the Nixon
administration followed such a course. Beijing responded favorably to
engagement only after two years of unilateral American gestures. As part
of a similar effort toward Iran, the Unites States should try to create
a more suitable environment for diplomacy by taking actions that
gradually breach the walls of mistrust.
Washington can begin by ending its provocative naval deployments in the
Persian Gulf, easing its efforts to get European and Asian banks to
divest from Iran and inviting Iranian representatives to all regional
and international conferences dealing with the Middle East. Along this
path, the language of American diplomacy would also have to alter. The
administration cannot propose negotiations while castigating Iran as
part of an “axis of evil” or the “central banker of terrorism” and
forming a regional alliance to roll back Iranian influence.
Once a more suitable environment has been created, the United States
should propose dialogue without conditions with the aim of normalizing
relations. For too long, proposed talks with Iran have focused on areas
of American concern: nuclear proliferation and Iraq. A more
comprehensive platform would involve the totality of disagreements
between the two countries and also address Iran’s regional interests.
On the nuclear issue, Iran would have to accede to a rigorous inspection
regime to make certain that its nuclear material would not be diverted
for military purposes. In the meantime, more cooperative relations
between the two parties could benefit stability in Iraq, where both
Tehran and Washington support the same Shiite-led government.
After 28 years of sanctions and containment, it is time to accept that
pressure has not tempered Iran’s behavior. The announced release of the
British captives shows that the Islamic Republic is still willing to
mitigate its ideology with pragmatism. A policy of patient engagement
will change the context, and that may lead Iran to see relations with
America to be in its own interest. Only then will Tehran chart a new
course at home and abroad.
Vali Nasr is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author
of “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.”
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and
the author of “Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.”
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