Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Iran as linchpin in the Middle East

"Not-So-Strange Bedfellow," Tom Friedman's column on Iran today, has a few observations about Iran's importance to the future of Middle East peace and advice for the Bush administration:
Because the U.S. has destroyed Iran’s two biggest enemies — the Taliban and Saddam — “there is now a debate in Iran as to whether we should continue to act so harshly against the Americans,” Mohammad Hossein Adeli, Iran’s former ambassador to London, told me at Davos. “There is now more readiness for dialogue with the United States.”

More important, when people say, “The most important thing America could do today to stabilize the Middle East is solve the Israel-Palestine conflict,” they are wrong. It’s second. The most important thing would be to resolve the Iran-U.S. conflict.

That would change the whole Middle East and open up the way to solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, because Iran is the key backer of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Syria. Iran’s active help could also be critical for stabilizing Iraq.
I hadn't heard that first point, that some Iranians are actually grateful, it appears, for the Americans having done away with the Taliban and Saddam. That's certainly not the conventional wisdom these days. It's more likely to be about Iran's growing power in the region as a result of these developments and its leader's pursuit of nuclear power. The latter view reinforces the U.S./Iran relationship as one of hostility. Perhaps Ahmadinejad's electoral losses of late and his rebuke by religious leaders in the government are affirmations of Friedman's point that the U.S. may have inadvertently gained some ground in their relationship with Iran. Now if only Bush wouldn't f*%# up potential new inroads with his bellicosity.

The advice for Iranian policy:
But for talks with Iran to bear fruit, we have to negotiate with Iran with leverage.

How do we get leverage? Make it clear that Iran can’t push us out of the gulf militarily; bring down the price of oil, which is key to the cockiness of Iran’s hard-line leadership; squeeze the hard-liners financially. But all this has to be accompanied with a clear declaration that the U.S. is not seeking regime change in Iran, but a change of behavior, that the U.S. wants to immediately restore its embassy in Tehran and that the first thing it will do is grant 50,000 student visas for young Iranians to study at U.S. universities.

Just do that — and then sit back and watch the most amazing debate explode inside Iran. You can bet the farm on it.