The media are discussing the desirability of negotiating with the Iranians. This is thought to be a real possibility now that the Administration has more or less admitted that it has to try something new in Iraq. All of this comes at a time when the United States and Iran are locked in a serious war of words over (1) Iranian support of terrorism, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon and (2) the willingness of the Iranians to defy the American demand that they cease their nuclear energy program on the basis that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon. Some groups in Washington talk of the need to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities sooner rather than later. Many commentators have concluded we would be attacking Iran now if it were not for the Iraq fiasco. Seymour Hersh tells us that the United States is secretly supporting anti-Tehran forces in Iranian Kurdistan in the west and Balochistan in the southeast. This is in addition to supporting the planning and propaganda of mainline anti-regime elements based in the West. All of this against the background of a relationship that includes a continuing absence of diplomatic relations because of an incident dating back to 1980. One is reminded of the cake for Tehran scandal in the mid-sixties when another Administration decided that they needed to develop communications with Tehran, and were willing to risk exposure of Administration duplicity to attain what were quite short-run objectives at best.
I suggest that we need to take a deep breath, reconsider out relations, and then set out to fundamentally restructure the American relationship with Iran.
We should recall that official American policy, reinforced recently by a Senate vote, is to support the development of nuclear energy in India, a country that openly broke the ban on nuclear proliferation. Because of the known relationship of Pakistan and India, the fact that Pakistan has also developed a nuclear weapon has also been accepted without letting this damage our relationship with that country. Turkey on the west is part of NATO, an alliance that depends on nuclear weapons for deterrence. It is an open secret that Israel, a country that has often announced the need to “do something” about Iran has nuclear weapons. I do not know if the Iranians will or will not develop a nuclear weapon if they continue their nuclear program. But I do know that it is unlikely that Iran, whether ruled by mullahs or democrats, will feel that the United States has justice on its side in the nuclear dispute. This being the case, it is unlikely that threats or sanctions will in the long run arrest the development Iran wishes; indeed, it may even give added ammunition to those Iranians who want nuclear weapons so that the country might more easily stand up to the Americans.
We should recall that after 9/11 the Iranians has shown itself to be much less involved in terrorism directed against the United States and Europe than its neighbors. In fact, Iran assisted the American effort to defeat the Taliban in Iraq. Since Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are also extremist in their anti-Shi’a diatribes, Iran is in many ways a natural ally of the United States in this part of the anti-terrorist “war”. We should also recall that Iranians have been largely absent from the list of terrorists that have been arrested for terrorist activities in Europe and the United States. I note there have been North Africans, Saudis, Egyptians, Gulf states, and, also and especially, Pakistanis among the accused. The terrorists frequently seem to train in Pakistan. We should note that the United States and Pakistan have been close allies during the Cold War and the War Against Terrorism, as odd as this may seem. It is true that Iran has been involved in helping Palestinians and their allies in their struggle with Israel, but regardless of our ties to Israel, this is not a struggle with which we should identify American interests.
Iran has a greater interest than any other country outside the American Coalition in the outcome of the chaos in Iraq. Its interests are three-fold. First is its historic record as a dominant power in the area now occupied by Iraq. Second is its domination by Shi’as, the national religion of Iran and the dominant religion in more than half of Iraq. The relation of the societies through the Shi’a bond goes back to the conversion of half of Iraq to Shi’ism by the Iranians in the 15th and 16th centuries. The overwhelming majority of foreigners who visit the holy cities of Iraq are Iranians. We remember that Ayatollah Khomeini plotted his victorious return to Iran from his exile in Iraq. Third, is the natural desire of Iranians to make sure that a powerful Iraqi state dominated by Sunnis never again threatens Iran as it did in the 1980s. In retrospect, the United States was simply wrong to support Saddam Hussein in his war with the Iranians. We backed the wrong horse and we have had to pay for it.
Given these facts, the United States should develop diplomatic relations with Iran as soon as possible. We should then discuss our common interests, including the concessions that each side can reliable make. Let us mention a few possibilities: there are many more. We should accept Iran having a major interest in Iraq. In return for curbing the violence of some of the Iraqi actors often said to be aligned with Iran, such as the Mahdi Army, we should accept their role in training and equipping security forces in Iraq, especially in Shi’a areas. We should encourage Iran to accept the existence of a semi-independent Kurdistan, on the understanding that the United States will not support new revolutionary activity among the Iranian Kurds.