Throw away the axioms: A new approach to Iran

Apr 17, 2015 | Iran, Israeli Defence Forces, Israeli Politics, Middle East

Here are four facts that turn the whole Iran debate on its head:

  • If Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, it will.
  • Sanctions have accomplished all they can accomplish, and maintaining them or strengthening them would be counterproductive.
  • Iran has an educated middle class that already pulled off a near-successful revolt and is the key to Iran’s future.
  • What Iran does is more important than what Iran says.

Iran currency

Let’s look at these facts one by one and see where they take us. This is going to require some open-mindedness and willingness to consider alternatives that have not been brought before us in the past. It means putting aside our fears and emotions, and promoting our interests instead.

Preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons is a lost cause, much less the goal of dismantling its entire nuclear program, as Israel insisted on until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before Congress. Distracted by the political fireworks, as usual, few noticed that he dropped that central demand.

It is clear that Iran has constructed its main nuclear development facilities in places where even the best American bunker-buster bombs can’t get at them. A military strike might delay Iran’s nuclear program for months or years, but it would also ensure Iran’s hostile stance toward the West for generations, alongside the very real danger of triggering a region-wide war.

Even now, Iran could construct a “dirty bomb,” a device made up of radioactive material that is dispersed by a conventional explosive charge. It doesn’t produce a Hiroshima-style mushroom cloud, but it could leave wide swaths in the target area uninhabitable for years.

The fact that it hasn’t done that shows that even Iran, that radical, mullah-driven, terror-supporting, hate-spouting pariah, understands the consequences of such an attack and is not suicidal.

Iran with nuclear weapons capability might not be the end of the world, literally or figuratively. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years now, possessed by world powers and less stable entities like Pakistan, yet only one nation—the leader of the free world—has ever dropped the bomb.

Some political scientists argue that possession of nuclear weapons can actually moderate a nation’s actions instead of ensuring nuclear blackmail or, worse, nuclear attacks. As evidence, India and Pakistan, sworn enemies, have had several major wars—but discounting a flare-up in 1999, none since both went nuclear, despite provocative events like the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai, India in 2008, reliably linked to elements in Pakistan.

So let’s conclude that it’s in our interest to see to it that even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will not feel the need or desire to use them. That includes not transferring them to the terror groups it sponsors, knowing that such a maneuver would be totally transparent and would trigger retaliation.

How do we do this? There are two ways. The Western world is well on its way to exhausting the first way—sanctions, punishment, isolation and intimidation. Those measures have worked to some extent, but the effectiveness of sanctions is nearing an end.

Western sanctions have decimated Iran’s economy. Look at the exchange rate of the Iranian rial—it’s nearly 30,000 to the dollar, and much higher on the black market. Basic products are out of the reach of millions of people. Unemployment is high—figures are unreliable, so let’s leave it at that. And despite all the consequences for its people, Iran proceeds with its nuclear program.

The danger here is that continued economic hardships will bring about the collapse of the country, and there is no guarantee that in a state of economic deprivation and chaos, a liberal regime would emerge. History indicates otherwise.

After World War I, the West retaliated against Germany with stiff economic sanctions. They triggered multi-digit inflation—my father recalled taking a basketful of bank notes to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread—and brought Germany to its knees. The outcome—though I am not arguing that this was the result of the sanctions alone—was that Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, at first through a free election. The master demagogue promised to restore Germany’s glory, and that’s what the people wanted to hear.

Would post-World War I Germany have developed differently if the sanctions had been modified? It’s impossible to know. But the outcome could not have been worse. Even normally lucid Germans descended to the depths of ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and ethnocentrism in the midst of their hardships. The same could happen in Iran.

Of course Iran already has a radical, terrorist-tainted regime. But is there any hope of change if the educated, liberal middle class is driven further into poverty? These are the people who came close to driving madman President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office after his bogus re-election in 2009. Iran’s ruthless security forces barely managed to put down the riots that erupted after the obviously fixed election. These are the people who must emerge to lead Iran away from the violent fundamentalists who are now in charge. And they must do it on their own. Western involvement in their activities would be as counter-productive as every other attempt by the West to involve itself directly in Mideast affairs over the past decade.

We are left, then, with an effort to encourage Iran to moderate itself, giving it “something to lose,” to adopt the concept usually mentioned in the context of the Palestinians but never applied effectively. That means carefully allowing Iran to re-enter the world, emerge from its Western-enforced isolation, and taste the benefits of trade and diplomacy, while guaranteeing that those benefits outstrip the highs derived from radicalism, terror and exporting revolution.

While all this is going on, the West must walk the tightrope of maintaining ties with Shiite Iran’s enemies—the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia—unless the West has decided to throw its lot in with Iran at the expense of the others, which is both unnecessary and misguided, though some think that’s exactly what President Barack Obama is up to. The upside of that theory is that US policy is not totally incompetent—it might just be misguided. For example, there is no reason to force anyone to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or between Iran and Israel, as the US seems to be doing. They can continue to insult and threaten each other while the world goes about its business. More on that later. Israel is a master at maintaining quiet relations with countries that are officially its enemies, and Russia routinely plays both sides of the streets in world conflicts, showing that in this era, you don’t have to choose sides rigidly.

The most important challenge with this approach is the time lag. What happens between the time the West eases up on its pressure and the time Iran joins the civilized world? It could take years. How do we assure ourselves that Iran is moving in the right direction, without imposing self-defeating measures like sanctions?
Effective supervision of Iran’s nuclear program would be a partial answer, and the framework agreement between Iran and the six powers calls for that—but it doesn’t solve all the problems, notably Iran’s support of terrorism.

Dealing with Iran in this new, positive way is not a matter of appeasement. It’s not a prize for terrorism. It’s not giving in to extremism. It’s acting coolly in the interests of the West and, eventually, Israel.

Now let’s put the last issue to rest. Iran is among the world leaders in spewing hatred against the West, especially the US, and Israel. No other nation besides Israel is confronted by a fellow UN member that pledges its destruction. This is not to be taken lightly, but it’s not the main element to determine the future. First of all, Israel can defend itself with anti-missile systems and its second-strike capabilities in the worst scenario. That is both a deterrent and a defense.

Further, what matters is what Iran does, not what it says. In the Mideast, public statements play a different role than they do in the West. In the US, reporters dutifully tote up campaign promises and trot them out to show how candidates don’t keep them. In the West, if you promise something, you’re supposed to do it.

In the Mideast, not so much. Making a strong statement is often the equivalent of doing something. You’ve said it, now let’s move on.

Egypt’s media frequently run anti-Israel content. Conspiracy theories abound, blaming the Zionists and their all-powerful Mossad for everything that’s wrong. So when I started working in Egypt as a journalist in 2009, and especially after I moved there in 2011 for a two-year residence, I expected some tensions when people discovered I’m a Jew and an Israeli.

Quite the opposite. I was warmly welcomed by the dozens of Egyptians in my office, all of whom knew I’m an Israeli.  Outside, people who discovered I’m Jewish didn’t tone down their positive behavior. Hating Israel is part of the culture, all right—but it’s nothing personal, and it’s not a big deal. Recently a well-versed and well-traveled expert in Arab affairs laughed with delighted approval when I observed, “Egyptians hate Israel the way I hate broccoli.”

And the fact is, Egypt and Israel have close relations in the fields of economics, military and intelligence. Most of them are out of the public eye. Even key economic agreements, like the QIZ pact that benefits millions of Egyptian workers, are not talked about.

Of course it would be nicer if these beneficial arrangements were public, and if Egyptian media stopped charging that Israel sells poisoned seeds to farmers and sends sharks to frighten tourists away. One day that might happen. But it’s not that important in the larger scheme of things.

Could Israel and Iran develop beneficial ties, while Iran continues to threaten to destroy Israel? The two countries had just those kinds of under-the-table relations, including military cooperation and oil purchases, alongside public dealings, when the Shah ruled before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the right circumstances, economic relations could flourish again, though military and intelligence cooperation is unlikely.

It might even be beneficial, in a twisted way, for the two nations to continue to trade insults and threats as a cover for resumption of cooperation.

That’s to say, Iran’s threats, Holocaust denial and radical statements are unpleasant. But if they are not backed up by hostile actions, they could even serve a purpose.

The key is to divorce the threats from their implementation—to find a way to entice Iran to stop supporting Hezbollah in its worldwide terrorism, most directed against Israel. To stop funding Hamas and sending it weapons. To stop funding terror groups that target the West.

The problem here, as before, is handling the transition period. No one is going to allow a terror attack or a war here and there while Iran is moving toward its new role as a member of the international community. The incentives must be real, behavior-oriented and concrete. There must be an “or else” factor, but it must not be the dominant element.

Yes, all this defies common wisdom and consensus about Iran. If you’ve read this far, it means you’re ready to start thinking outside the box. Clearly there is much thinking yet to be done, but the conclusion is clear:

Once a policy like sanctions and punishment has run its course, and pursuing it will do more damage than good—it’s time to rethink the whole issue and come up with something new, a policy with a promise of success.

Foreign Correspondent MARK LAVIE has been covering the Mideast since 1972. His book, Broken Spring, draws lessons from his four years in Egypt.

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