Is It Time to Rethink U.S. Policy on Iran? We Do Not Have a Reasoned, Coherent Policy with Which Our Allies Can Identify

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Is It Time to Rethink U.S. Policy on Iran? We Do Not Have a Reasoned, Coherent Policy With Which Our Allies Can Identify

By Alon Ben-Meir

In the aftermath of four suicide bombings in Israel, Iran found itself accused by the United States of being the principal source of military and financial support for Hamas, whose military wing has claimed responsibility for three of the bombings. The U.S. stopped short of making a direct connection between Iran and the recent attacks, and Iran vehemently denied any involvement. Perhaps, instead of rushing to judgment, it is time to take a fresh look at U.S. policy toward Iran, bearing in mind ultimate U.S. strategic interests in supporting our allies and restoring stability and equilibrium in the Persian Gulf region.

The Clinton administration's Iran policy is premised on post-Cold War realities--the end of Soviet support of Arab military adventurism, the growing environment of Arab-Israeli relations, the reduction of both Iraqi and Iranian power--and rests on an attempt to keep both Iran and Iraq relatively weak vis-a-vis each other, the rest of the Middle East, and U.S. interests in the region. In short, a policy of "dual containment."

A close look at the U.S. and the Iranian positions reveals a clear misunderstanding of each other's motives, all compounded by mutual distrust fed by past U.S.-Iranian confrontations. On the one hand, the U.S. continues to regard Iran as a state that sponsors anti-U.S. and anti-Western terrorism, bent on exporting its brand of Islamic revolution and determined to undermine America's Arab allies.

On the other hand, the Iranians see themselves as reasonable and conciliatory, pointing to their useful role during the Gulf war and their efforts to secure the release of the hostages in Lebanon. The litany of charges leveled by both sides against each other could be extended almost indefinitely; the point is that we and the Iranians have reached a stage in our relations when hostility and recrimination no longer serve any useful purpose.

First of all, our embargo and sanctions have failed to cripple the regime, much less stem the growing trade Iran carries on with our own European allies and the rest of the world. And there is no little hypocrisy in our stance: we have been buying Iranian oil through third parties for the past several years now. While the Iranian economy is in difficulty, it is by no means in crisis. There is growing international interest in Iran as a potentially lucrative investment platform, and many of the companies that put their assets "on ice" during the revolution are now being encouraged to reopen their offices.

Iranians themselves, for all the repressiveness and intolerance of their regime, have begun carving out autonomous social and political space for themselves, and it is clear that the religious zeal that characterized the early years has begun to diminish throughout the country. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that Iran, for all its troubles and problems, is slowly regaining its position as the hegemon of the Gulf, and as it re-emerges, has begun to signal that given the right conditions, U.S.-Iranian relations could improve.

Although Iran and the U.S. are two profoundly different societies, there still exists in Iran a deep attraction for Western lifestyles. Since the country borrowed much of its institutional base, infrastructure, and technology from the West, Iran's clergy knows that major changes will have to take place if the country is to avert political and economic disaster. What is needed, then, is a new thinking based on the changed realities in the region, and initiatives to suit.

Hostility and recrimination no longer serve any useful purpose.

The U.S. should adopt a policy that would engage those Iranians disposed to seek American contact. There are now self-interested, pragmatic people, both in and out of the Iranian government, who can be engaged to our mutual benefit. …