Wed, Nov 15, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Saudi shakeup gives US an opening with Iran

This can go two ways: toward either war or a new understanding of the balance of Middle Eastern power

By Amir Handjani and Alireza Nader  /  Bloomberg View

Japan, South Korea and India also see Tehran as an untapped market worthy of short-term risks in exchange for future economic gain. All are now buyers of Iranian crude and petrochemicals, and all are looking to make substantial investments in the Iranian economy.

US sanctions against Iran are unlikely to reverse its influence in the Middle East. The Syrian government is heavily dependent on Iran, while the Iraqi government views it as a partner in combatting Sunni jihadism and Kurdish separatism. Sanctions will undoubtedly slow Iran’s economic growth, as they have for the past 40 years, but they will not fundamentally alter Tehran’s ability to project influence.

It is unlikely that the US and Iran will stop antagonizing each other any time soon — but the Trump administration could treat Iran not as a rogue threat, but as it would treat any major rival, such as Russia or China. Where suitable, Washington could engage with Tehran.When otherwise necessary, it could make clear that it will not compromise on the security and stability of its allies.

Washington and Tehran need to come to an understanding so as not to further inflame the region. This would entail the Trump administration abandoning its attempts to undermine the nuclear agreement and calling for regime change in Iran. Continuing to demonize Iran for all the ills of the Middle East is counterproductive and will only lead to further escalation. This strategy was employed during former Bush’s administration with disastrous consequences.

The Trump administration should re-establish high-level contact that existed during the previous administration and broaden the scope of diplomatic engagement to include regional security issues. They should take place at the ministerial level, with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If nothing else, this would ease some tension and provide a pressure valve for airing grievances.

It can also resolve crises that may arise in the Persian Gulf, where both navies operate. Last year, Iran’s capture of US sailors was resolved peacefully because of the rapport established between then-US secretary of state Kerry and Zarif. It is difficult to imagine in today’s contentious climate such an incident settled without a shot being fired. Diplomatic channels to deconflict between hostile countries are necessary.

It is unlikely that the US could dissuade Iran from some of its most troublesome activities, such as supporting Hezbollah or Hamas, but there is a middle ground in which the two sides can live with the existing realities on the ground.

For example, the US and Iran have a shared interest in preventing the reemergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Neither side wants the political uncertainty in Lebanon following al-Hariri’s resignation to spiral out of control. Both Tehran and Washington want to strengthen the central government in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, both nations have a vested interest in seeing the sectarian violence that has engulfed the region come to an end.

US policymakers should not assume they can reverse the trends of the past 15 years. The US invasion of Iraq showed how poor planning and erroneous assumptions can backfire. At the time, the Bush administration wrongly predicted that liberating Iraq from former president Saddam Hussein would unleash democratic movements across the region and diminish Iranian influence.

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