Israel muddies US-Iran momentum
Now that United States President Barack Obama has promised Iran a "new beginning" in bilateral relations - a fresh approach that will not be marked by threats in lieu of negotiations - the course of US-Iran diplomacy has entered unchartered territory.
A handshake between US diplomat Patrick Moon, who covers South and Central Asia, and Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh over the weekend at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Moscow may have raised the stakes even higher.
The SCO meeting on regional terrorism and drug trafficking included senior British diplomats, the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon. Although Moon and Akhundzadeh merely exchanged pleasantries, the encounter follows the first talks in 30 years between Iranian and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials, who met for talks two weeks ago.
The face-to-face exchange also came just ahead of Tuesday's UN-backed conference in The Hague on Afghanistan's security issues, setting the stage for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first potential talks with Iranian counterparts. According to reports, Akhundzadeh is expected to represent Iran at The Hague - a conference originally proposed by Clinton and with representatives of 90 nations expected to attend.
Still, the State Department has downplayed any "substantial" meetings between US and Iranian officials at the conference, according to the Associated Press. "It remains to be seen what role the Iranians want to play in Afghanistan. We would like to see them play a positive role, one would hope they are coming with that in mind," a State Department official told the AP.
The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that finding shared objectives with Iran in Afghanistan is a priority. Even so, perhaps a common enemy is more likely - the Taliban. In 1998, a contingent of Iranian officials was killed by the Taliban and Tehran was a staunch supporter of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance resistance movement in Afghanistan.
Some US officials have hinted that the administration's strategic hope is that The Hague meeting could thaw adversarial relations and open the way for broader talks on Iran's nuclear capability. But even as such hopeful progress has been made, old and familiar disagreement linger between Tehran and Washington.
New challenges, old problems
One major stumbling block to a breakthrough in US-Iran diplomacy remains Israel, whose leaders in the past have issued dire warnings of military strikes against Iran in case the nuclear negotiations fail.
Over the years, confrontational rhetoric from Israel has translated into precisely the kind of diplomatic threat that Obama has so far shied away from. Many feel that Israel's anti-proliferation efforts have been counter-productive to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear standoff.
At a recent talk at Harvard University, Zvi Shtauber, a former Israeli diplomat and former director of the Institute for National Security Studies, admitted that Israel lacked credible intelligence on Iran and that "no one in Israel can provide a credible analysis of what Iran wants". Shtauber claimed that Israel was unclear how far Iran wanted to take its nuclear program, and did not know whether Tehran would follow the "Japanese model" in which nuclear weapons capability remains dormant.
At the same time, Shtauber reiterated the official Israeli line that Iran's nuclear program represented an "existential threat". Shtauber said that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would simply "delay" Iran's nuclear program by at most a couple of years. According to Shtauber, no one in Israel expected that an attack on Iran would put to rest any potential Iranian threat.
When asked at what point Israel would consider a military strike, Shtauber said it would be when Iran was "within the striking distance" of acquiring a nuclear bomb.
"I personally think that Iran's nuclear capability is quite legitimate," said Shtauber, adding that his personal view was that he did not see an imminent threat of Iranian nukes being fired at Israel - even if Iran built a nuclear arsenal.
To explain Israel's adherence to a military option against Iran, Shtauber said it's the "strategic implication" of re-mapping the regional balance in favor of a "hegemonic Iran". He also pointed to a "cascading effect", saying Egypt, among other Arab states, would not sit idly by and watch Iran's proliferation without following suit.
Conspicuously absent in Shtauber's analysis is any reference to alternative counter-proliferation steps that Israel may be capable of undertaking. One possible example of this would be Israel's willingness to bring its own nuclear program within the purview of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel could also pledge support for a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone or endorse peace plans with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors.
If Israel is serious about preventing a cascading nuclearization of the region, experts believe it must take proactive steps such as those mentioned above.
This aside, there is a major defect in the Shtauber's argument that Israel lacks a good reading of Iran's intentions. The description of Iran's alleged quest for hegemony - implying that Iran would need the bomb to coerce its neighbors into submission - is generally regarded as pure fiction and an exaggeration of Iran's perceived insecurity in the region.
An undermining influence
The new diplomatic tempo generated by Obama's "game-changing" tactics toward Iran could be torpedoed by Israel's military rhetoric against Iran.
The Israeli leadership claims to support Obama's initiative, but appears unwilling to forego its sabre-rattling broadsides - salvos that simply fuel the argument of Tehran's hardliners that Iran should not be content with simply having nuclear capability, and must actually build bombs. Fortunately, this is not an argument to which the present leadership in Iran is listening.
Israeli officials and media often refer to "the time factor" - how close Iran is getting to the bombs. Yet it may be Israel's own threats that have been accelerating the process. In fact, the more Israel repeats the official line that "once all the options are exhausted, there will be no choice but the military option", the more it prevents successful negotiations.
If Israel intends to reduce Iran's - and the region's - margin of insecurity, clear signals should be sent that it harbors no ill intentions toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.