It's not often that one has the stomach to call on political realists—all too frequently purveyors of foreign policy stalemate and pals of despots worldwide. However, realism was called for last week when American intelligence agencies released a National Intelligence Estimate claiming that Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Even half-hearted assessments of the national interest would have produced more insightful responses to the NIE than the ones that we got.
With everyone focusing on the nuclear issue, few noticed that regardless of whether Iran produces atomic weapons or not, its acrimonious rivalry with the United States in the Middle East is bound to escalate. Given that the U.S. went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq from imposing its hegemony in the Persian Gulf area, does it make sense to assume that Washington would readily allow a threatening Iran to do what the Iraqis failed to?
There were two types of reactions to the NIE, both inadequate for dealing with the real stakes in American-Iranian hostility throughout the Middle East. The first focused on the fact that President George W. Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, had in recent months amplified their war rhetoric against Iran, even though Bush was told last August by the director of national intelligence, Michael McConnell, that Iran's nuclear program "may be suspended." This seemed to contradict an earlier statement by the president that McConnell had told him no such thing.
The second reaction was rather different. With the nuclear threat allegedly on hold, politicians and commentators suddenly began advising the administration to engage Iran in some sort of discussion. Senate majority leader Harry Reid called on Bush to do what President Ronald Reagan had done with the Soviet Union and push for "a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Republican senator Chuck Hagel asked the administration to show the same flexibility toward Iran that it had shown toward North Korea. Rand Beers, who served as national security advisor to John Kerry's presidential campaign, observed: "Simply put, we have an imminent need for a real dialogue with Iran, not a military confrontation."
It was certainly unsettling that Bush and Cheney were talking about a war with Iran when they knew, or should have known, that their stated justification for war was no longer valid. However, the rush toward advocating dialogue and flexibility was equally incomprehensible.
A dialogue over what? No one seemed particularly clear on that point. Suddenly, it seemed, the problem was not power politics and the thrusts and parries of the U.S.-Iranian quarrel, but the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to be conciliatory. During the 1980s, in the midst of the debate over nuclear missiles in Europe, French President Francois Mitterrand famously declared: "The pacifists are in the West but the missiles are in the East." Of course there were missiles in the West then, just as there are those in Washington now who still favor war against Iran; but it's also undeniable that those wanting to open up to Iran are mostly on the American side, while Iran's leaders continue to relentlessly pursue strategic advantage in their own neighborhood.
The Iranian's are playing three-dimensional chess in the Middle East, while the U.S. is playing with its hankie. American policy in the region suffers from a lack of ideas. The administration's disorientation after the release of the NIE report showed that in the absence of a war option (and an unpersuasive war option at that), the U.S. remains unsure what to do about Iran. But the Democrats are equally at sea. Even administration critic Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council adviser on the Middle East, admitted recently that "[r]egrettably, opposition Democrats are not defining a genuine alternative. Beyond criticism of President Bush's 'saber rattling,' Democratic presidential candidates offer, for the most part, only vacuous rhetoric about 'engaging' Iran."
For example, what is the U.S. doing about Iran's alliance with Syria, and their joint patronage of Hamas and Hizbullah? Hamas is dead set on wrecking American efforts to bring about a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and several months ago the movement mounted a successful coup against the Fatah movement in Gaza. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal lives in Damascus, is a frequent visitor to Tehran, and although Syria will send sporadic signals that it is displeased with the Islamist group, this is chaff designed to keep alive the illusion that Syria and Iran are on different wavelengths. Nothing will divide Syria from Iran when the relationship brings so many foreign supplicants to Damascus with offers of concessions to President Bashar Assad, if only he would consider abandoning Iran. Assad takes the concessions, offers none of his own, and yet the visitors still keep coming.
Similarly, Iran and Syria are putting on a "good cop, bad cop" routine in Lebanon. Damascus is steadily re-imposing its hegemony over its smaller neighbor, neutralizing or assassinating those who oppose a Syrian return. Iran is backing Syria up because Hizbullah will benefit. The Shiite group knows that the stabilization of Lebanon under a sovereign government would force it to surrender its weapons; and without weapons Hizbullah would cease to be Hizbullah. Iran needs the party and its arms to sustain its influence in the Levant, as well as to preserve a deterrence capability at Israel's doorstep. Damascus, in turn, needs Hizbullah to intimidate Syria's Lebanese foes. The Iranians are proving almost as instrumental as the Syrians in reversing the gains of the 2005 Cedar Revolution.
The U.S., meanwhile, continues to back Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. However, it is increasingly doing so from a distance. The Bush administration has spent much less money than Iran in Lebanon, and has not pressed its wealthier Arab allies to make up for the deficit. In fact it has been remarkably silent as one such ally, Qatar, has played an essential role in bolstering the Assad regime and Hizbullah. Worse, in the run-up to the ongoing crisis over choosing a new Lebanese president, Bush endorsed what would prove to be a disastrous French diplomatic initiative to facilitate an election. The initiative, in practical terms, invited the Syrians back into Lebanese presidential politics, undermining Washington's and Paris' declared aim of defending Lebanese sovereignty.
The Bush administration has also been catatonic in Congress. For example it has done nothing to press for passage of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act, legislation that would substantially strengthen and widen U.S. sanctions against Syria. The law is blocked in the House Foreign Affairs Committee because of disagreement over wording between the ranking Democrat and Republican members. The reasons for this are mainly domestic and electoral. Yet thanks to parochial politicking, the U.S. government has been denied a valuable stick with which to defend its interests in the Middle East.
So, how does a dialogue look now? Iran would gladly draw the U.S. into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.
That's because Iran believes it is winning in the region. The U.S. seems unable to deploy the same array of foreign policy instruments as the Iranians, even if it is vastly more powerful; America's principal Arab allies are anemic, their mostly geriatric regimes illegitimate; and America's attention span abroad often seems so limited that an adversary's favored tactic is to just wait until its officials lose interest and head for the lecture circuit. The Iranians are right, they are winning; at least for the time being.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.