Enough antics, Iran needs bold diplomacy

Daily News Egypt
8 Min Read

Soon after taking office in summer 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked most of his country’s ambassadors. Many of the posts left vacant as a result have been slowly filled, but the resulting dearth of professional skill in the conduct of Iranian diplomacy continues to be evident to this day. In fact, at a time when a looming crisis with the United States calls for careful and astute diplomacy on the part of Tehran, Ahmadinejad’s antics and his apparent inability to make bold moves are only strengthening Washington’s hand. The US appears to be moving slowly and deliberately toward a calculated military confrontation with Iran. It has deployed a second carrier group to the Persian Gulf region, with an accompanying strike force. Recently, the Americans raided an Iranian office in Irbil and arrested five Iranians. These actions may be calculated to provoke the Iranians into over-reacting militarily, in order to give the Bush administration a pretext for retaliatory action against targets inside Iran aimed at crippling Iranian military capabilities once and for all. The administration also seems to want to turn Iran into a scapegoat for its failures in Iraq, by pointing to elusive evidence of Iranian complicity in causing American casualties. Alternatively, these and other threatening moves may be designed to intimidate the Iranians into behaving less belligerently on the nuclear issue, or playing less of a destabilizing role in Iraq. However, what remains worrisome is that careful strategic thinking has not been the Bush administration’s strong point. There is no reason to believe that recent setbacks in Iraq, or in Washington, have taught President George W. Bush and his advisors any lessons. Attacking Iran militarily is bound to have long-term catastrophic consequences for all concerned. Besides the usual rhetorical responses, the Iranians have yet to react to the American moves in any meaningful manner, and certainly not in a way that serves their national interests. Ali Larijani, Iran’s top national security official, met recently with officials in Saudi Arabia, including King Abdullah. The meeting was officially meant to discuss Iraq. There has been intense speculation, however, that the real purpose of Larijani’s visit was to pass on conciliatory messages to the US through the Saudis, ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Riyadh that same week. Whatever the real purpose of Larijani’s visit to Riyadh, at this point the Americans are likely to interpret any diplomatic move by Iran as a sign that their pressure tactics are having their desired effects. In the last month or so Washington has sought to reframe the Iraq war in a way that portrays Iran as an integral part of the problem. Helped largely by the Iranians’ own ineptitude, the US appears to be scoring significant diplomatic gains by reinforcing its close alliances with important regional players, especially the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan, in an effort to further isolate Iran. Perhaps more than any other time, Iran needs to engage in bold and innovative diplomacy. The leadership has been inept at launching effective diplomatic offensives and at getting the Iranian side of the story out. Idiotic initiatives like the recent Holocaust conference in Tehran have done little to endear Iran to the international community. Ahmadinejad’s flair for the dramatic is well known. That’s why one way for the Iranian president to turn this populist impulse into a diplomatic coup would be for him to publicly and openly invite Bush to Tehran; or to declare his willingness to travel to Washington in order to engage in substantive discussions on a variety of issues, including the situation in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program, and Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah. If the Iranian government has nothing to hide on these and other issues that concern the US, as it so often claims, then it should have no qualms about publicly discussing them with Washington. By extending such an invitation, Ahmadinejad would go a long way toward neutralizing American military intentions. Depending on the manner in which the offer is made, Ahmadinejad can help repair the damage he has done to his country’s image abroad. Assuming Bush and others in the US administration reject his offer; Ahmadinejad would make the US appear uncompromising and dead set on raising tension with Iran. For Ahmadinejad, who faces mounting domestic criticism of his handling of the economy, and who was never popular with the urban middle classes that desire better relations with the US, such an initiative could help reverse the president’s declining popularity at home. With regime reformists and pragmatists emboldened by recent electoral victories, they might welcome such a move as well. Securing the consent of Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei is more difficult. But Khamenei is also ultimately a pragmatist, and, in the past, he has shown willingness to sign off on unorthodox initiatives that benefit the regime. There is a precedent for this sort of initiative. In May 2003, the Iranians secretly offered a “grand bargain to the US that reportedly included concessions on the nuclear issue and promises to rein in Hamas and Hezbollah, in return for economic incentives and improved relations. Still believing in a quick and decisive victory in Iraq, the Americans summarily rejected the Iranian offer. This time around, however, on the heels of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that the US talk to Iran, and the unexpectedly stiff resistance of congressional Democrats and some Republicans to a “surge in troop levels in Iraq, dismissing a public and high-profile normalization proposal would not be as easy. Bush is unlikely to accept Ahmadinejad’s invitation, or, for that matter, other similar overtures from Tehran. But, given Washington’s determined efforts to make Iran part of the Iraqi problem, it is time for Tehran to engage in active and frontal diplomacy. So far, the Iranians have done little over the last year to help themselves. They need to take the diplomatic initiative and lessen the chances of a US attack on Iranian soil. At the very least, Iran can avoid hastening the Bush administration’s path into yet another disastrous Middle East war. Mehran Kamrava is a professor of political science at California State University in Northridge. He is the author of, among other books, “The Modern Middle East: A Political History since the First World War. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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