BY MOHAMED HELAL
Most people focus on Iran’s alleged ambition to join the exclusive club of nuclear weapons nations as a grave security threat. Whether or not Iran actually aspires to acquire nuclear capability is debatable, but what is certain is that examining the nuclear program in isolation of the political landscape within Iran and the broader strategic environment in the Middle East is a fatal mistake.
The problem with Iran is more complex than a clandestine nuclear program or the enrichment of uranium; the problem is what Iran stands for and represents: a religious response to the problem of governance in the Middle East. This is a dangerous answer, because a regime that legitimates itself on the basis of religion will also purport to be the custodian of truth. It is a system that eliminates the marketplace of ideas and encroaches on what is supposed to be a deeply personal and private relation between man (and woman) and his God. In the Middle East, where religions were born and continue to thrive, and where people are highly emotional, such a model threatens to retard the region back to the Dark Ages.
Worse still, as Iran feels increasingly threatened by western, particularly American, pressure, it has sought to gather regional cards that it could use in its political poker game with the West. To put it another way, Iran has planted detonation charges throughout the region that it could use to ignite the Middle East if the need arises. Thus, the ominous shadow of Iran’s political and military claw Hezbollah constantly hangs over Lebanon, threwatening to replicate the events that provoked Israel’s disproportionate war on its small northern neighbor in August 2006. Iran also periodically threatens to annex Bahrain and already occupies three U.A.E. islands in the Strait of Hormuz, which is a maritime strait critical for the global oil market. Tehran also holds many of the keys to Baghdad, with obvious implications for Iraq and the United States. Moreover, Iran funds and arms the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which are one of many challenges that are portending the division of the country overlooking the southern entryway to the Red Sea.
The question then is, what can be done about this, which is a question the Obama administration is probably considering now. The first answer to the complex problem of Iran is simple: do not use force. The United States has, fortunately, jettisoned the deleterious doctrine of regime change, and any surgical military strike will never eliminate Iran’s dispersed and well-protected nuclear program. If anything, a military operation against the Islamic Republic will unite Iranians, who will rally around the flag, and, more dangerously, compel Tehran to ignite the powder-keg that is the Middle East.
What we need is a more sophisticated strategy of talking softly and carrying a big stick. For Iran the big stick should be the threat and gradual application of tighter multilateral, U.S. and European economic and military sanctions that generate enough local pressure for the regime to mend its ways. Tehran must place all nuclear facilities under full IAEA inspection, withdraw its support of subversive elements in the region and to refrain from intervening in the affairs of its Arab neighbors. In return, Iran should be promised the rightful place of the glorious Persian civilization at the table of nations, and it must receive assurances of non-belligerency from western powers and from Israel. This strategy must also be coupled with a sincere effort to free the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction. History has also taught us that all of the Middle East dilemmas will be ameliorated by peacefully settling the Arab-Israeli question and by the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
This requires both a dialogue with and pressure on Iran, and continuous consultations with regional players to reach understandings that avoid past mistakes. For too long the security of the Middle East and Persian Gulf has been dictated by cursory and shortsighted policies that have not fully comprehended the complexities and subtleties of the region. We must move beyond strategies like Reagan’s “Gulf containment” and Clinton’s “dual containment” that have perpetuated instability and insecurity. Instead, we must initiate a serious dialogue with all the relevant and influential parties, including Russia and China, to devise a sustainable policy that promises the weary people the Middle East peace and prosperity.
Mohamed S. Helal is an Egyptian diplomatic officer who studies at Harvard Law School as a Fulbright Scholar. He served in the Cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt from 2005 to 2009. The opinions expressed in this piece are exclusively those of the author.