Monday, July 31, 2006

Embrace Iran as Part of the Solutiion--William O. Beeman

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Embrace Iran as part of the solution
William O. Beeman
01:00 AM EDT on Monday, July 31, 2006

BLAMING IRAN for the horrific violence between Israel and the Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine is a popular stance. But though it might make people feel good to give Iran yet another tongue-lashing, such an exercise would do nothing to stop the violence going on in the Mideast. And, paradoxically, Iran could play a role in bringing about peace -- if it were allowed to try.

Iran makes a convenient scapegoat. It has no defenders. Americans and Europeans are furious with Iran over the its development of a nuclear program. The region's Sunni states (principally Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt) are worried about growing Iranian power as Shi'a forces throughout the Mideast grow in influence. The Sunnis are uncomfortable defending the Shi'a community in Lebanon, and are quite happy to have Iran bear blame for the war, even if the reasoning is weak.
Meanwhile, in the United States, neo-conservatives are primed with a decade-long program to attack Iran. They have conveniently grafted this onto the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict as a suggested response.

However, both of these positions are mistaken, in their analysis and their strategic goals.

The Sunni states' position is short-sighted and pusillanimous. Perhaps they hope that the Shi'a world as a whole will be weakened through Israel's actions. But there is no magic Israeli bullet that will eliminate the need of the region's nations to come to peaceful terms with Iran, which grows more prosperous and stronger with every American misstep and every increase in the price of oil. Nor can the Sunni states avoid accommodating the growing non-Iranian Shi'a population in the region.

Standing silent as the Lebanese Shi'a are attacked is also bringing about destruction of the Sunni population in Lebanon -- including the "Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean," the Sunni-and-Christian city of Beirut, long a financial and tourist center for the Sunni-Arab community. Standing on the sidelines in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict also effectively ignores the backlash being felt by the Palestinians and their supporters as Israel lashes out at Hamas.

The neo-conservative position is far more complex, and potentially more dangerous. The neoconservatives purposely ignore that their basic thesis is wrong. Hezbollah and Hamas are not puppets; they have control of their actions and destinies. More important, the neo-conservatives' proposed action -- attacking Iran militarily -- is impossible at present. A campaign against Iran is acknowledged by U.S. military strategists to be impractical and potentially ineffective.

Finally, even if the United States or Israel could destroy Iran's government through a military attack, this action would not curtail violence against Israel. More specifically, it would not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas, as is claimed by the neo-conservatives.

One can only conclude that the neo-conservatives have been calling for Iran's destruction for so long that they can't give up the habit. William Kristol, writing in The Weekly Standard and London's Financial Times on July 16, says: "No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . . little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. "

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has stated flatly: "Keep in mind that Hezbollah is not the indigenous Lebanese 'resistance' organization it claims to be, but is a military creature of Tehran."

Neo-conservative guru Michael Ledeen, of the American Enterprise Institute, writes: "There is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable."

These representative positions sound reasonable in Washington only because they perpetuate the U.S. foreign-policy myth that state support is the only thing that sustains such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas. The glib neo-conservative solution -- destroy the state supporters (in this case, Iran) and the offending groups will be destroyed -- sounds great to sound-bite-driven legislators with little knowledge of the Mideast.

However, with a little reflection, Washington policymakers should be running away from the neo-conservatives on this point, since the latter's spiel should sound ominously familiar. It is the precise formula promulgated by a major group of neo-conservative advisers (including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith) to then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 1996. Their paper, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," called for overthrowing the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria as a way to eliminate threats to Israel, on the theory that this would undercut support for groups opposing Israel.

This call for action was repeated by many of the same neo-conservative group members -- including Kristol, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Zalmay Khalilzad, under the rubric The Project for the New American Century -- in 1998. They wrote a recommendation to President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling for overthrow of Saddam Hussein, in part to obtain security for Israel. The basic logic in these position papers drove the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Then as now, the idea that Mideastern regime change would secure Israel's safety is wrong. It is wrong both in its reasoning and in its understanding of the facts about Hezbollah and Hamas -- their history and their purpose.

Hamas (as some neo-conservatives, including Kristol, actually point out) is an emanation of the Muslim Brotherhood, now enjoying resurgence in Egypt. Hamas predates the Iranian Revolution, and the Muslim Brotherhood's pedigree goes back to the 19th Century and the original Islamic Movement, led by reformer Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani. The movement was designed to counter European powers and the Mideastern rulers who collaborated with them to rob the region's people of their patrimony.

Iran has no control over Hamas's actions or political agenda. The closest Iran comes to influencing Hamas is in financial support. This is based on a general open appeal from Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al after Hamas came to power in Palestine -- in a democratic election -- and was subsequently isolated by Israel and the United States.
Hezbollah would never have existed if the French had not created a state where the plurality of Shi'a Muslims would be ruled by minority confessional groups in their own nation -- groups that had no interest in protecting the Shi'a as they were attacked by Israel throughout the late 20th Century.

Iran was instrumental in the birth of Hezbollah, in the early 1980s, when it was the only defense available for the Shi'a community. For several years, however -- although Hezbollah uses Iranian arms and Iran communicates with Hezbollah -- Iran has had no effective control over Hezbollah's actions, especially since Hezbollah has become largely a political and charitable organization. As former CIA analyst and now Georgetown University Prof. Daniel Byman wrote in Foreign Affairs, in 2003, Iran "lacks the means to force a significant change in the [Hezbollah] movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon, and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah's leadership, or at least its most militant elements, simply to sever ties with Tehran's leadership."

In short, both Hamas and Hezbollah have their own history, their own reasons for existing, and their own agendas regarding Israel and the West. The idea that they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with an Iranian agenda is absurd. Even if Iran were leveled -- like Carthage in Roman times -- both Hamas and Hezbollah would continue their struggle against Israel, and the Shi'a world, energized by the outrages perpetrated against it, would continue to grow in strength and defiance.

It is better, by far, to embrace Iran as part of the solution than as part of the problem. Iran may not influence the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, but it offers a way to talk to the two groups. In the past, it's been willing to serve as a mediator in the region, and because Iran craves the international community's respect -- more than any other commodity -- it relishes the idea of being offered a position as a peacemaker.

Vilifying Iran is not doing anyone any good. Asking it for a little help might, on the other hand, do much to bring about Mideastern peace.

William O. Beeman is a professor of anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University.

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