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In Dealing with Iran, the Wrong Kind of Talk Can Be Dangerous

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There are at least two problems with the increasing calls for the United States to engage Iran.

Asserting that the United States should “talk to Iran” assumes that we don’t — but we do.

Asserting that America’s president should talk to Iran’s president misunderstands who wields power in Iran and what Iran wants — it is not Ahmadinejad and it is not nuclear weapons capability.

Real power in Iran is in the hands of the clerics who formulated Iran’s broad, well-thought-out and very serious religious and political worldview. It is Shi’ite in design, not Persian. (Ahmadinejad talks about Iran. The clerics talk about Islam.) Their program is not born of imagined slights or misdeeds by a particular U.S. president, and a new president will not reverse it.

Their worldview is positive, not reactionary, in that it proceeds from the belief that expansion is the fate of Shi’ite Islam and that this destiny is a good one. They don’t want to be our friends; they do want us not to be in their way.

The nuclear quest began with the shah, was adopted by the Islamic Revolution and has proceeded through “reformist” and “reactionary” Iranian presidents — Ahmadinejad is nastier, but no more important than the others. Nuclear capability is a tactical goal in the strategic quest for regional hegemony and expansion of Shi’ite Islam. Focus on nuclear weapons as an end in themselves distracts from Iran’s immediate, though not necessarily existential, threats to the United States and Israel.

In the Middle East, Iran arms, trains and supports Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Sunni Hamas in the Gaza Strip and increasingly on the West Bank. Iran’s investment in Hezbollah before the 2006 war was more than $1.5 billion; what was lost has been replaced and upgraded. Iran is the main supporter of Syria’s President Assad, has aided the PKK paramilitary group seeking an independent Kurdish state and provides training and equipment for militias in Iraq (including Sunni ones).

In our hemisphere, Iran has joined Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in showy displays of anti-Americanism. Energy-based Iranian relations with Russia, China, India, Turkey and Western Europe serve to undermine American interests.

About what should we talk? Which of these, or nuclear weapons, will Iran give up and why? And who would we betray in our efforts to cement a deal?

Inside Iran, the clerical police — not Ahmadinejad — are the guardians of “public morality.” They are the “modesty police” who can beat women for supposed indiscretions of dress, and they are the ones who hang homosexuals and stone adulterers. They arrest and “disappear” student leaders, ban books, monitor phone calls, break up demonstrations and persecute the Bahai.

The Iranian people desperately hope we will not abandon them to “talk” to their jailers.

Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons does not only threaten Israel, although Israel rightly takes the greatest interest in its progress. The Arab world from the Gulf to Lebanon to Egypt fears an aggressive Iran; it is terrified by the thought of a nuclear one.

Interestingly, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told a visiting delegation of American Jews, “We have common ground with moderate forces in the Arab world. Israel’s [nuclear] program never threatened them; Iran’s does. We have a common interest in not seeing Iraq subjugated by Iran and worry about the future of Syria.”

This suggests a policy direction for the United States: Don’t “talk” with a powerless “president” or clerics who believe they are on the right side of history, push back where alliances are possible and adopt an energy policy based on national security.

As Iran is positive in its worldview, we must be in ours. That means several important steps. In addition to maintaining strong support for Israel, we must:

* Make Latin America more favorable to the United States and inhospitable to Iran by approving the Colombia Free Trade Pact, dropping tariffs on Caribbean sugar for ethanol (ecologically better than corn), taking socialist, pro-free-market democratic Brazil and Chile seriously, and isolating Nicaragua (not hard; the Sandinistas aren’t popular).

* Diversify American sources of energy, deriving as much as we can domestically. Energy is fungible — an increase in global supply makes Iranian oil less expensive and reduces the windfall to the mullahs.

* Strike back at Iran when it violates the border of Iraq to strike at U.S. troops. The same should apply to Syria’s decision to reopen its eastern border and allow al-Qaida access to western Iraq.

* Forge new regional relationships independent of the Palestinians. After the Arab states and Israel come to understandings about security, the Palestinians will have the Arab cover they need to make their peace with Israel.

* Avoid steps that legitimize the regime, otherwise we risk abandoning people who are not our enemies and who should be our friends.

* Ensure close coordination of American and Israeli policies, and continue firm American support for Israel; it sends a message.

Sometimes talk is cheap. In this case, the wrong kind of talk can be dangerous.

(Shoshana Bryen is the senior director for security policy at The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington.)

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