AMERICA'S relationship with the Middle East--and, in particular, Iran--is at the center of some of the most important strategic challenges that the U.S. faces today and in the future: energy security, our nation's relationship with the Islamic world, and the future of the greater Middle East. Underline the latter, as many of the world's historic and vital interests intersect in the Middle East. At present, this region is more combustible and dangerous than at any time in modem history. It is experiencing political upheaval driven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious and ethnic differences, radical Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, despair, and the war in Iraq.
Forces and events in the Middle East cannot be neatly categorized. The swirl of history creates layers upon layers of complexity. There is tittle transparency there--that is the inescapable reality that cannot be assumed away. To ignore this is to risk being trapped by false choices. For instance: which is worse, Iran with nuclear weapons or war with Iran? These are not our only choices in dealing with the Middle East and Iran. Diplomatic initiatives, UN mandates, regional cooperation, security frameworks, and economic incentives are part of the mix of international possibilities that must be employed to address the challenges of the Middle East comprehensively.
We will fail to protect and advance America's interests--in the Middle East and, indeed, around the globe--if we allow ourselves to be trapped in a self-constructed world based, not on reality, but on flawed assumptions and judgments leading to misguided policy and dangerous miscalculations. The U.S. must approach the Middle East with a clear understanding of the complexities of the region. Our strategic policies have to be regional in scope, integrating Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent Islamic extremism, access to energy supplies, and political reform into a comprehensive policy equation. This should be developed through consultation, cooperation, and coordination with our regional allies Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel. This will require a new diplomatic and economic framework to work within; in other words, a new Middle East frame of reference.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip to the region--one of several in the last six months--is encouraging. However, the focus of the U.S. on the Middle East must be comprehensive, sustained, and at the highest levels of all the governments involved. This will require a new disciplined follow-through from the Bush Administration that we have not seen yet. I have suggested a presidential envoy be appointed to represent the President in the day-to-day bolting together of a Middle East peace process that can win the support of all parties involved.
In the Middle East of the 21st century, Iran is a key center of gravity, a significant regional power. The U.S. cannot change that reality. America's strategic policy must acknowledge the role of Iran today and over the next 25 years. Doing this in no way condones Iran's dangerous, destabilizing, and threatening behavior. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and provides material support to Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups. Iran publicly threatens Israel and is developing the capacity to produce nuclear weapons; it has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq; and unquestionably is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. and Iraqi military forces. Then, of course, there is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' abduction of 15 British sailors.
Iran must be held accountable for its actions, but these acts are just one part of a complicated picture of a country with a 3,000-year history, governed by a complex and opaque political structure, burdened by a stagnating economy, and located in a geostrategically unstable region. As described by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Iran is a country that "regularly holds sort-of-free elections" where "women vote, hold office, are the majority of its university students, and are fully integrated in the workforce," and whose residents "were among the very few in the Muslim world to hold spontaneous pro-U. …