Diplomacy: Keep allies close, but Iran closer

Looking for new friends

Until recently the world’s superpowers were engaged in the G20 summit in Canada. Bring the world’s richest and most powerful leaders together and put them in a place named Huntsville and what should ensue but a game of target practice. Iran is the prey and, naturally, the language is predatorial.

This was the outcome of the G20 summit that came to a close a few days ago. But what is it about the country that baffles? What game is being played out on the Persian landscape? Exactly what goals are the Iranians hoping to score? How can The West better understand Iran’s intentions? And more importantly, how can they work together towards a safer Middle East?

Iran has a habit of stomping on eggshells. After four rounds of UN sanctions backed by the US and Great Britain, Iran has continued to respond in defiance, capitalizing on its relationship with other parts of the world through strong economic ties that contribute to almost half of Iranian government’s revenues. Its recent deal with Turkey and Brazil demonstrates the importance of Iran’s global relationships in helping it to win support for its nuclear enrichment programme. In fact, it has created an even bigger quagmire for Western powers that have continued to underestimate the strategic edge to Iran’s foreign and economic policy.

Barack Obama’s administration is insistent that Iran’s nuclear ambitions should be tackled in whatever way necessary after learning about the country’s concealed nuclear facility. Upon his inauguration, President Obama offered an ‘extended hand’ to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the hope that diplomatic talks would pressure Iran to give in. Interestingly, Obama has also tried his hand at connecting to the Iranian people in his Norouz message in the hope that it would ameliorate the hostile air and demonstrate the US is against the Iranian government and not its people.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei dismissed Obama’s grassroots approach saying it would not change Iran’s position on its rights for nuclear enrichment, leaving Obama’s message floating in thin air. Yes, Iranians often take issue with their government but very rarely is this true in the realm of foreign policy. Iran’s public seems united in their disdain of US strategies in their neighbourhood.

One could argue the US is ultimately in need of stronger allies to forge through with a master plan of stopping Iran, but Iran’s relationships with Turkey and other economically strong countries are proving to make this difficult. Writing in Haaertz, Tommy Steiner writes that there exists a power vacuum which the US was hoping to fill with Turkey in order to maintain diplomatic influence in the Middle East. Turkey has instead strengthened its economic ties with Iran so much that Iran now accounts for 30 percent of Turkey’s oil imports.

Iran’s trade agreements with other countries such as India, China and Russia have further demonstrated its ability to forge strong economic partnerships. Even when countries like China and Russia are pressured into voting for another round of sanctions, they refuse to give up their slice of the Iranian cake.

Apart from capitalizing on strong economic ties, Iran is deeply involved in regional affairs, a fact that has intimidated US foreign policy makers and led to a dependence on Iranian involvement to make the Iraq and Afghanistan wars a definite win. Writing in the Guardian, Simon Tisdall argues that Iran manipulated Iraq’s March General Election campaign by heavily funding Shia groups in neighbouring Iraq – the Iraqi National Alliance, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr’s party – in the run of up to the elections. Iran’s generous investment in Iraq’s future and its capitalizing of Shia interests demonstrates a calculated attempt to play off US influence on Iraq’s future and maintain its dominance in the Shia world.

Similarly in Afghanistan, Ahmadinejad is eating off President Hamid Karzai’s plate by building solid agreements that heavily invest in cross-border trade. The Afghan-Iran relationship goes beyond economic ties and into the deeper cultural and linguistic roots the two countries share. Whether Iran and Afghanistan are battling cross-border drug trafficking or sealing a peace agreement, at least they both know they are speaking the same language.

Meanwhile, Israel continually supports America’s plans to cease Iranian nuclear enrichment and is dependent on further sanctions to prevent Iran from getting heavy-handed with the rest of the Islamic world. Iran’s overt support for Hezbollah and Hamas are contentious and a clear threat to Israel’s regional security. Iran’s strong regional relationships with Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Pakistan coupled with attempts to dominate the Islamic world with a jihad against ‘Western oppressors’ have left Israel on edge, largely uniting its population behind their government’s foreign policy.

The US and its allies cannot deny that they were surprised when Iran forged stronger economic and political ties to neighbours and political giants like Turkey, Russia, China and Russia to counter resistance to its nuclear programme and balance the weight of four rounds of UN sanctions. Iran’s ability to provoke underestimation by its foes is turning out to be its greatest strength.

To combat this, a renewed attempt by the United States to engage diplomatically with Iran on issues of regional security would not only wrong foot some of Iran’s more hard line policy makers but would also empower pragmatic politicians. Such a policy, however, is doomed to fail unless it addresses regional security alongside issues with Iran’s nuclear programme. Encircled by US bases, with unstable neighbours, Iran is unlikely to respond well to lecturing on nuclear weapons from a country with one of the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpiles.

A change in America’s foreign policy toward Iran should instead push for a better understanding between the two countries. One of the options the US has is to advocate a nuclear-free Middle East, a vision countries in the Arab League have already outlined. This policy shift would undoubtedly require Israel to formally disclose its nuclear arsenal and put its weapons down. Israel on the other hand, has its own national security issues as it is surrounded by Islamic countries that could possibly turn the other cheek.

A second option would be to forge ties with Iran over the future of Afghanistan. The US is well aware of Iran’s influence and economic ties to this war-torn country and it is in its best interest to shake a hand and build more trust. A third and more plausible option would be for the US to lift all economic sanctions, given Iran agrees to a full investigation of its nuclear capabilities. One cannot expect the US to change its own foreign policy without Iran lifting a finger. Ultimately, it takes two to tango.

Iran’s foreign policy is far from ad hoc and should be considered as representative of its regional influence and ability to act as a mediator. Given that the US strategy of isolating Iran internationally has not worked, negotiating and gaining assistance from Iran could be an alternative to carry forth a successful Middle East policy, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should seriously consider keeping its allies close, but Iran even closer.

Muddassar Ahmed is Chief Executive of Unitas Communications, a London-based communications consultancy. This article was originally written for ‘Dialogue’ a specialist public affairs journal.

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