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It’s time to talk to Iran

WASHINGTON (JTA) – At this week’s Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert politely asked his colleagues to shut their mouths about the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

Olmert’s gag order followed two weeks of unhelpful, knee-jerk reaction by some Israeli politicians caught off guard by the reports’ conclusions, which found that Iran suspended its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that it acts as an essentially rational player pursuing traditional national interests of “security, prestige and regional goals.”

The release of the NIE report should prompt more than silence from Jerusalem, however. It should prompt a re-thinking of Israel’s – and the pro-Israel community in America’s – approach toward Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vile statements about the Holocaust and Israel should not be ignored or taken lightly. But the pre-NIE strategy of using coercive diplomacy and military threats was deeply flawed, dangerous and failed to deliver concrete results. It has not stopped Tehran’s pursuit of uranium enrichment, enhanced regional security or tempered Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric.

Now it’s time for Israel and its friends to take the initiative and promote direct, unconditional and comprehensive U.S.-led engagement with Iran.

Three considerations drive this approach: practical, political, and strategic.

On the practical level, the double-pronged tactic of international sanctions and the threat of military action has become even less viable.

The military option, never popular outside neoconservative circles and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, now seems even more remote. Aside from the international outcry an attack would bring, the huge potential downside of an attack on Iran – further destabilization of the entire region, a ratcheting up of anti-U.S. hostility, increased violence in Iraq and possibly on Israel’s doorstep – remains unchanged.

This, to say nothing of the fact that there are serious questions about the efficacy of a military strike in destroying Iran’s nuclear program.

Notably, American Jews oppose military action against Iran, by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent, according to the recently released annual American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish attitudes.

The NIE report has made the other stick used against Iran, international sanctions, more difficult to sustain, much less intensify. The international debate now is where it always should have been: how to change Iran’s behavior, not how to change its regime.

On a political level, support for engaging with Iran is growing. Leading Democratic U.S. presidential contenders have embraced the diplomatic option. Even the new Republican front-runner, Mike Huckabee, suggested in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that diplomacy should be “put on the table,” bemoaning 30 years without “talking” to Iran.

Sensing the shifting political winds in the United States, Israel’s former Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, argues that Israel must ensure that its interests are represented in any dialogue.

There are other political reasons to talk to Iran. The Islamic Republic will hold parliamentary elections in 2008 and presidential elections in 2009, and bellicose rhetoric by the United States merely strengthens Ahmadinejad and Iran’s hard-liners.

Iranian reformers and more pragmatic conservative opponents of Ahmadinejad have called on America to replace its saber-rattling with an offer of unconditional engagement.

The most compelling of all reasons for changing the approach to Iran is that the current strategy simply does not work.

While isolation has not advanced U.S. or Israeli interests, engagement could yield the desired security guarantees for Israel and the United States.

Iran cooperated with U.S. objectives in Afghanistan after 9/11. In 2003, Iran asked the Swiss to send U.S. officials an outline proposal for a deal that addressed key Israeli and U.S. concerns, including verifiable and transparent oversight to guarantee no Iranian nuclear weapons program; cessation of material support for non-state actors engaged in violence against Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas, and encouraging them to pursue exclusively political activities; support for the Arab League’s peace initiative with Israel, and cooperation in stabilizing Iraq.

In return, Iran demanded recognition of its own security interests, ending hostile U.S. behavior against the country and ending international sanctions.

That offer was ignored, and over time Iran’s position vis-à-vis the United States has grown ever stronger.

America’s consistent exclusion of Iran has not been beneficial. Middle East peace conferences in Madrid in 1991 and at Annapolis, Md., last month both intentionally excluded the Islamic Republic. Yet when the peace process is framed as an exercise in isolating Iran, its sponsors should expect nothing less than for Iran to try to play the spoiler.

It wasn’t always this way. Trita Parsi, in his unique book, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States,” describes how Israel reluctantly shifted away from a strategy of building alliances with the Middle East periphery – Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia – against the Arab center, to one of cautious flirtation with the Arab center against the Iranian periphery, as witnessed in Annapolis. Neither approach delivered.[photo 20071220daniellevy align=right max-width=200]

It’s now time to pursue an inclusive strategy that attempts to bring both the Arab center and Iranian periphery into a comprehensive peace arrangement and a framework for regional security.

Rather than resigning ourselves to the unnecessary conclusion that Israel’s fate is one of perpetual conflict, we ought to be more ambitious in our diplomatic reach.

Israel and the pro-Israel community should be encouraging comprehensive U.S.-led engagement with Iran, not the opposite, and should help shape that dialogue, not lag behind it.

(Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Ehud Barak, a negotiator on the Oslo Accords under Yitzhak Rabin and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva peace initiative.)

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