Why can't we just get along with the Iranians?
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The apparent failure of the third negotiation session between the P5-plus-one and Iran last week raises again the question of why the United States and Iran have remained estranged since 1979.
The P5-plus-one consists of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- China, France, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States -- plus Germany.
A cooperative relationship between the United States and Iran could do us some good in the Middle East, Central Asia and the rest of the world. Iran has important neighbors, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. Common interests in Afghanistan served as the basis for the first contacts between Tehran and the Obama administration. Iran has influence in Syria, too.
Given the nature and strategic importance of Iran -- a nation with the 27th largest gross domestic product and a population of 74 million -- it is very hard to understand why the United States has not worked out a functional relationship with it. Instead, the United States has stayed mad about the Iranian student invasion and hostage-taking at the American Embassy in Tehran 33 years ago and the many admittedly annoying statements made by Iranian leaders in the intervening years. A mitigating factor in some of the provocative pronouncements is the fact that internal Iranian politics are conducted vigorously by competing parties and relations with the United States is a favorite warhorse that Iranian politicians like to mount in debate with opponents.
There are at least three cattle prods that serve as serious barriers to improved U.S.-Iranian relations. I would hesitate to put them in order of importance, but all are real.
The first is the Iranian diaspora -- the people who bailed out of the country when Shah Reza Pahlavi was ousted by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his crowd in 1979. They haven't given up on returning to power in Iran if circumstances become propitious. Many of them live in the United States, including a cluster in Los Angeles. Americans with eclectic tastes in television recently had a look at them in a TV series titled "Shahs of Sunset."
The propitious circumstances that they believe might return them to power would include the realization of the desire of certain Americans, including some military and civilian authorities, for regime change in Tehran. As time goes by, Iranians in the diaspora increasingly resemble the Romanoffs of Persia. They do, however, remain hopeful and active, funded in part by the CIA.
A second party that works avidly to keep the United States from returning to a fruitful relationship with Iran is Israel. One of Israel's major goals is to distract the United States so as to avoid U.S. pressure to resolve its suppurating problem with the Palestinians. (That problem remains at the core of America's problems with Muslim nations.) Israel was delighted to see the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. It revels in U.S. hand-wringing over the violence in Syria, even though that conflict poses certain risks for Israel.
The Israeli position is certainly comprehensible. Israel understandably wants to work out its own destiny, with the support of, but without the heavy-handed "guidance" of, the United States.
In the Middle East, the United States across recent decades has shown a disturbing propensity to wreck countries it professes to want to fix. Recent examples include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
So Israel's approach to U.S. attempts to build a better relationship with Iran is that it is better to have the big dog off chasing a ball -- in this case, Iran's feeble, possible nuclear program -- rather than chewing on Israel's leg about a two-state resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.
Two facts about Israel and Iran. Iran's nuclear program poses no threat to Israel. First, Iran has no nuclear weapons capacity yet or in the foreseeable future. Second, if it did, Israel's own second-strike capacity, through its nuclear-armed submarines, creates a "mutually assured destruction" situation that militates strongly if not definitively against an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel.
Israel and Iran are separated by miles and miles of Iraq and Jordan, most of it desert. A ground war between the two would be very bad news for them, the region and the world, but the chances of it ever occurring, given the geographic "givens," are, basically, zero.
Therefore, the heat Israel is putting on American leaders to take rigid, unreasonable positions in negotiations with the Iranians is a tactic, rooted as much as anything in Israeli internal politics and an effort to extract newer and more sophisticated weaponry from the United States.
Israeli pressure also constitutes an effort on the part of its politicians -- for their own domestic political reasons -- to demonstrate how much clout they wield in American internal politics. (The answer to that is, quite a bit.)
The third barrier to improved U.S.-Iranian relations lies in the Middle East's primeval struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, dating back to the 7th century. Shiites (mostly in Iran) make Sunnis (most of the rest of the Middle East) nervous, the same as American "born again" Christian activists make Episcopalians nervous. But the Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf sandboxes) have more oil than Iran. They also have longer-standing modern alliances with the United States, which has military bases on their territories.
The end result is that, because of the Iranian diaspora, Israel and the pressure of the Sunni states, U.S.-Iranian relations remain -- and are likely to remain -- difficult to bad. It is a pity, given what probably could be achieved if the two countries could work together.
First Published June 27, 2012 12:00 am