A Letter to Barack ObamaMiddle East can turn on a new axis
Millions of people in the Muslim-dominated Middle East have celebrated your victory in the hope of witnessing a much-needed change in the foreign policy behavior of the United States toward the region.
Despairing decades of misguided and biased US policies that have resulted in serious damage to the US's image on the part of millions of ordinary citizens in this crucial region of the world, they have now been moved to a new level of expectation from the US government that is unparalleled in recent history. In a word, the people of the Middle East have vested a great deal of hope that you will soon deliver on your promise of "change we can believe".
But, what kind of changes in the US's Middle East policy are needed before the people in this region can begin to feel exonerated in their initial enthusiasm over your historic election as the 44th US president? I urge you to consider the fact that your willingness to listen to the diverse voices of the region, instead of recycling the previous pattern of lending ears to a narrow spectrum of vested interests, would certainly constitute an important barometer of change.
A dialog-based, rather than monologue-based, interaction is sadly missing today, and your failure to respond to the congratulatory letter of Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad does not bode well in this regard.
Indeed, how would you feel if you had sent a similar letter to a Middle East leader congratulating him or her on an election victory, making sure that your letter was also a symbolic gesture of a small olive branch meant to diffuse tensions between nations, yet without receiving as much as an acknowledgement? From the vantage point of people of the Middle East, not respecting the protocol of dispatching a formal response is tantamount to arrogant disrespect, indeed a tissue of the familiar Western hegemonist and neo-colonial mindset that is deeply ingrained with "Orientalist" master and servant predilections.
The fact that the US government finds itself today in deadly quagmires in parts of the Middle East is not divorced from the longevity of this ossified and counter-productive mode of thinking that underlies the US's policy toward the Muslim Middle East.
A major "house-cleaning" of the US's Middle East policy, whereby the old arrogant approach gives way to post-hegemonist behavior that is marked with full respect for the sovereign rights of the region's nation-states, is desperately needed and, again, one hopes that your administration will be able to introduce the significant changes that are required in this respect.
The Middle East, a cradle of civilizations, birthplace of three of the world's greatest monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and a fulcrum of the world's energy supply, is already broad enough and the misleading terms such as "broader Middle East" or "greater Middle East" carry the false connotation that the region is not broad or great enough, or that the outside world has a special mandate for social engineering vis-a-vis this region.
That is 19th-century Western colonialism still talking, and a real change toward the Middle East must not be limited to the policy level but also the underlying epistemological assumptions, linguistic jargons and semantics that cement neo-imperialist intentions. A wholesale change of vocabulary, to sanitize the policies infected by implicitly disparaging, even downgrading, paternalistic behavior seen on the US's part so far, is an important prerequisite of a qualitative improvement in the US's relationship with the region, away from the furnace of clashing civilizations.
Indeed, rhetoric and rhetorical self-presentation should not be minimized here: a direct refutation by you of the dangerous thesis of clashing civilizations can go a long way toward building bridges of confidence between the US and the Muslim people of the Middle East, who constitute more than 90% of the region's entire population and who, rightly or wrongly, by and large think that their interests are bypassed or devalued by US policy-makers for the sake of the state of Israel, encompassing less than 5% of the region's territory and population. Bringing a balance to US policy with respect to countervailing Jewish and Muslim interests in the region is as you know one of the biggest expectations of your administration.
Unfortunately, the foreign policy team that you have put together does not seem very promising in this regard and, consequently, we are already witnessing a rapid evaporation of the initial enthusiasm aforementioned, lapsing to the sustained cynicism that US foreign policy is in the clutches of pro-Israel interest groups that much prefer the world to focus on other Middle East issues, instead of on the continuing oppression and suffering of Palestinian people.
Henceforth, should your administration fail to correct the egregious flaw of your predecessor, who consistently failed to move the stalled Middle East peace process forward by giving it only lip service priority and without the slightest pressure on Israel, then you would be risking a lion's share of the faith and trust of the people in the Middle East and, indeed, the entire Muslim World. The de-prioritization of the Palestinian problem under the guise of an "Iran threat" and the like must stop, no matter how many policy proposals are hurled at you that seek precisely this objective.
Fact is that the state of Israel talks one way and acts another, it pledges commitment to a future Palestinian state and, yet in practice, takes all the steps necessary to preclude its fulfillment, particularly of a "contiguous" Palestinian state, nowadays scene to greater and greater cantonization by relentless, illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands in direct violation of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.
History proves that only when pinched with the threat of backlashes in the form of curtailing or freezing of the US's financial and military assistance to Israel, Israeli leaders respond, otherwise they simply ignore any US call to respect the peace accords that it has already signed. Thus, unless you send a strong signal to Israel that times have changed and the US will not tolerate any more infringement on the rights of Palestinian people, I am afraid the Israelis will interpret your silence as a green light to continue with their business as usual, decried by former US president Jimmy Carter as "worse than apartheid".
Nor should you be oblivious to the other apartheid in the Middle East, nuclear apartheid, according to which Israel's nuclear arsenal is treated as benign and non-threatening to its Arab neighbors and as unrelated to the threat of Middle East proliferation. You must make Israel realize that its dream of infinite nuclear monopoly in the Middle East is self-delusional, and that it is in Israel's own best interests to take tangible and concrete steps toward a non-proliferation regime and the United Nations' initiative of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East.
The US's approach is indirectly increasing the threat of nuclear terrorism in the Middle East and the best remedy here is to adopt a comprehensive, all-inclusive stance that addresses the lingering anxieties of millions of Muslims about Israel's nuclear arsenal. One only hopes that your administration will do more than simply issue the traditional US support for Israel and its security, but rather nuance this support from blind support to a critical support that does not shy away from criticizing Israel when necessary.
Today, Israel is increasingly menacing Iran with military strikes against its nuclear facilities and, per recent reports, was held back recently by President George W Bush. Any military adventurism against Iran will have a devastating impact on regional and global peace and will likely adversely affect a global economy that is already reeling.
Israel is not under any "existential threat" by Iran, whose leaders are keenly aware of Israel's nuclear capability against their country, nor is Israel a top priority for Iran's foreign policy, which is geared first and foremost toward the immediate crises in neighboring states.
Iran has legitimate national security concerns about conflict spillover and the post-September 11, 2001, exponential increase in the US's military presence in Iran's vicinity, and it does not serve your administration's interest to continue to press Iran without due consideration of its national security concerns.
As a major Middle East actor, Iran, thanks to its long uninterrupted history and regional influence, is today a force to be reckoned with, instead of being wished away. Iran and the US in the present context of Middle East politics have shared or "overlapping interests", to quote William Burns, deputy secretary of state under the current administration, and a wise US policy would be one that focuses on how to normalize relations with Iran based on those interests, instead of solely focusing on the divisive interests.
An official White House declaration that would send the "axis of evil" terminology to the dustbin of history is needed, as this terminology precludes a meaningful decipherment of US-Iran shared interests. Iran has formed an "axis of cooperation" with both Iraq and Afghanistan, and with appropriate changes in the US's Iran policy, a great deal more Iranian cooperation with respect to the theaters of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan could be gained (as well as in the rest of the Middle East).
With respect to Iraq, the stage is now set for a new round of US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security and, in light of Tehran's willingness to drop its opposition to the US-Iraq security agreement, such a dialogue is critical for the fulfillment of that agreement's stipulations about the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq by 2011.
In the absence of a US-Iran mutual understanding on Iraq, the chances are that the US will renege on its withdrawal agreement by citing Iran's "meddling". But a good deal of what the US considers as "meddling" pertains to the close geographical proximity and strong religious and historical ties between Iran and Iraq. With the bitter memories of Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980 still fresh in Iran, Iran's leaders cannot take the risk of remaining aloof from the political evolution in Iraq, where the risks of re-Ba'athification still rattle the new regime. Your administration can bring the US and Iran closer on Iraq and Afghanistan by assuring Iran that any compromise with the Taliban or remnants of the Ba'athist regime is not on your agenda.
In Afghanistan, where opium production has skyrocketed since 2000, the US and Iran have a common enemy in the form of narcotics traffic and Iran is likely prepared to engage in direct cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against this menace, by perhaps even allowing NATO supply convoys to traverse its territory, despite Iran's misgivings about NATO's eastward expansion. For this to happen, the US must first reorient its Iran policy away from coercion and toward cooperation, as such incremental steps have important side effects in security confidence-building and indirectly and directly tie in with the nuclear standoff.
What is more, Iran has already sent strong signals regarding its willingness to seriously consider a US request for a consular office in Iran; your administration's early move in sounding this request will instantly break some ice and will have disproportionate symbolic significance in terms of a prelude toward a future rapprochement.
In conclusion, after so many years of misguided, lop-sided and self-injurious US policies in the Middle East, a golden new window of opportunity exists as a direct result of your election. Either your administration will seize on this or will spoil it, by dictating continuity instead of discontinuity, and hopefully you will make the right decisions that will fulfill rather than frustrate the hopes and expectations of so many millions of people across the Middle East.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.