Israel feels the pain as Obama engages Iran
By Atul Aneja
May 15 2009
The Obama administration appears to be considering what has so far been unthinkable — viewing Tehran as Washington’s future strategic ally in West Asia.
Iran has been drawn into a new round of sabre-rattling after its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced Israel as “totally racist” at a recent international conference in Geneva.
Soon after, Israel’s military chief, Gaby Ashkenazi, warned Iran that the Israeli army was “capable of striking the farthest enemy.” Iran’s parliamentary Speaker, Ali Larijani, shot back, saying Israel would meet with a crushing response. He warned that countries dependent on the United States should not speak to Iran with a “loud voice.”
It is unlikely that the Israeli bombast will impress the Iranians much. By now, they have sensed that that the U.S., Israel’s chief ally, is making fundamental changes to its policy in the region. Transitioning from the Bush era perception of Iran as the hub of regional instability, the Barack Obama administration appears to be considering what has so far been unthinkable — viewing Tehran as Washington’s future strategic ally in West Asia.
This approach, however nascent, will have a far-reaching impact and can yield Washington unprecedented benefits. Already a well-established regional heavyweight, Iran can help to stabilise a highly turbulent zone that stretches from the Hindukush mountain range in the east to the Lebanese shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the west. As a result, Tehran can play a critical role in cooling two areas of conflict which are of prime concern to Washington —Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran’s influence with Pakistan’s Shia community is also considerable. Besides, its clout in the Levant, in countries such as Syria and Lebanon as well as the Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, is substantial. Washington can leverage all this to its advantage by befriending Iran.
Iran and U.S. warming up to each other would also open new opportunities for Washington in the global energy sector. Iran is the fourth largest oil exporter and holds the second largest deposits of gas after Russia. Iran could do well with a hefty dose of foreign capital to modernise its oil industry. American oil companies, after a wait of 30 years, could find lucrative business opportunities in Iran, once the relationship between the two countries becomes normal. The process will not, however, be easy as resource nationalism is alive and kicking in the Iranian national psyche. This mindset has deep roots, which can be traced to 1953 when the CIA masterminded a coup against the former Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in retaliation for his decision to nationalise Iranian oil.
The Obama administration has already taken significant steps to advance its brand of foreign policy towards Iran. In his address on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Mr. Obama invited Iran to participate in a comprehensive dialogue in a spirit of give and take and mutual respect.
After outlining the broader framework for talks, he has begun to address specific areas, seeking Iranian cooperation. These are Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran’s support would also be vital if the Americans are to push for a genuine two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Only Iran and Syria have the leverage with the Palestinian group, Hamas, which has a firm hold in Gaza, to persuade it to make concessions that would allow a fair and comprehensive political deal to emerge.
It did not take the Iranians and the Americans long to begin their dialogue on Afghanistan. On March 27, U.S. and Iranian diplomats held a highly significant meeting in Moscow. The meeting, held on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conference, resulted in icebreaking talks between Patrick Moon, U.S. envoy for South and Central Asia, and Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister. A British diplomat was also present on the occasion. Another meeting on Afghanistan, where the two countries were represented, was held four days later in The Hague. The two sides shared yet another platform in Tokyo where a donors’ conference for Pakistan was held.
Iran is being drawn into Afghanistan at a time when the U.S. is making fresh plans to stabilise the country by handing over security to a vastly expanded Afghan fighting force. The Americans want to increase the size of the Afghan national army from 83,000 to 134,000 and of the Afghan police to 82,000 over the next two years. The Europeans are unlikely to contribute additional forces, but could help to meet the yearly expenditure of $3 billion which is expected to be incurred.
The Iranians have already said they would like to contribute to efforts at training Afghan security personnel. Police chief Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam told a recent news conference that the Iranians were ready to train the Afghan police forces and work with the Afghan government to counter the drug problem.
The U.S. could also be considering taking Iranian help to ferry supplies for its forces in Afghanistan. For, the traditional Khyber Pass route, used for sending supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan, has become increasingly prone to serious disruption. The other alternative could be approaching Russia and the Central Asian states for opening a new supply route from the northwest. However, that would mean passing vital cargo through areas which continue to remain deeply influenced by Russia.
The Iranian route has, therefore, emerged an attractive alternative.
Supplies can be sent to the port of Chabahar, from where a newly developed road link with Afghanistan has been established. The American media have already started advocating the promise of this route. According to an analysis in the San Francisco Chronicle, “One of the best alternatives is relatively new: a road India built between the Afghan towns of Delaram and Zaranj, which are linked by road with the Arabian Sea — through Iran.” The use of this corridor is also being viewed as a confidence-building opportunity between Tehran and Washington.
Iranian efforts in Afghanistan have a fair chance of succeeding because of the shared history and culture of the two countries. They were once part of ancient Persia. The widely spoken language in Afghanistan, Dari, is an eastern dialect of Persian.
The Iranians exercise substantial influence within the Hazara community, the third largest in Afghanistan.
With the security situation in Pakistan worsening, landlocked Afghanistan is also looking with greater intent at the Chabahar port as an alternative to Karachi for its overseas trade.
Because of their long-term interests that are involved, the Americans have so far not allowed recent incidents of friction with the Iranians to blow out of proportion. The clash of opinion over the arrest of U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi, and the accusations by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei that the Americans and the Israelis were responsible for the spate of killings of Iranian pilgrims in Iraq have not been allowed to obstruct future negotiations. Mr. Obama said after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s address at Geneva that he found many of his remarks “appalling and objectionable.” Nevertheless, he has maintained that the U.S would “continue to pursue the possibility of improved relations [with Iran] and a resolution to some of the critical issues in which there have been differences, particularly around the nuclear issues.” As the improved relations between the U.S. and Iran begin to show promise, an alarmed Israel shows discomfort. Powerful voices in Israel are now suggesting that massive air strikes against Iran must be pursued urgently and energetically.
Fully alive to the fallout of such a move, the Americans have warned the Israelis sternly not to pursue this path. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates went on record to state that a military strike would unify Iranians and “cement their determination to have a nuclear programme, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them.” The Israelis were jolted by another surprise a few weeks later when the Americans asked them to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This was a significant departure from the past as the Americans maintained strict silence on Israel’s nuclear activities.
The U.S. policy change towards Iran is part of the larger turnaround in Washington’s stance towards the region. Apart from Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia are the core components of the new geopolitical architecture emerging in West Asia. Mr. Obama has already visited Turkey. Aware of its regional aspirations and notwithstanding its status as a NATO partner, the Americans have not objected to Turkey’s decision to hold an unprecedented military exercise at the end of April with Syria, Israel’s arch-foe. Besides, senior American officials are already engaged in an intense dialogue with Syria.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer of oil, a member of the G-20 grouping and a powerful player in the Gulf economies as well as Pakistan, will continue to maintain its due importance in the U.S. strategic calculus.
The rapidly evolving realignment of U.S. interests and equations in the region has put a big question mark on the primacy of Washington’s relationship with Israel. Israel has so far remained the chief post-war ally of the U.S, safeguarding its interests in a region flush with oil. But with the possible emergence of Iran along with Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia at the core of a new power hierarchy, Israel, under pressure from the U.S., would have to make genuine changes in its relations with its neighbours, including the Palestinians, in order to retain its place at the regional high table.
Courtesy: The Hindu, New Delhi