Treacherous Alliance

Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 361 pp.

by Doug Bandow

Communist dictators and apparatchiks have routinely visited the U.S., with nary an eyebrow raised in polite society. Third World dictators have traipsed through Washington with only an occasional protest.

But the recent visit by Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York City caused endless caterwauling. He’s a nasty piece of work, of course, but the U.S. has worked with worse – such as Saddam Hussein, when, two decades ago, the U.S. backed Iraq in its aggressive war against Iran.

The refusal to deal with Tehran represents the triumph of hope over experience, the idea that refusing to acknowledge an adversary will make him go away. This strategy didn’t work with the Bolsheviks in Russia. It didn’t work with Maoist China. It didn’t work with the people’s paradise in North Korea. It didn’t work with Gadhafi’s Libya. It hasn’t worked with the Iranian mullocracy.

Particularly disturbing is the enthusiasm for war evident in some precincts of the Bush administration, among the neoconservative faux warriors, and in the Israeli government. Indeed, enthusiasm is an understatement for many members of the war lobby. Notes Parsi, “prominent neoconservatives, who for years had urged the Bush administration to take on Iran, were ecstatic” over Israel’s attack on Lebanon, and Iran’s ally, Hezbollah. Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute even “called for the United States to expand the fighting into a regional war.” It seems that everyone who was so wrong about Iraq wants to go double or nothing – attack a nation which is larger, more populous, possesses a more serious military, and has far more ability to retaliate against the U.S. (particularly in Iraq) and American allies. The operation codename should be Cakewalk II.

The criminal irresponsibility of this position is evident after reading Trita Parsi’s excellent Treacherous Alliance, which details the complex relationship among America, Iran, and Israel. Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (Johns Hopkins University), has woven a fascinating history filled with policy complications.

Today Iran and Israel are perceived as blood enemies. But their relationship actually is far more complex. Indeed, there’s good reason to doubt that Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rhetoric is intended for practical application. Explains Parsi: “Blinded by the condemnatory rhetoric, most observers have failed to notice a critical common interest shared by these two non-Arab powerhouses in the Middle East: the need to portray their fundamentally strategic conflict as an ideological clash.”

Although Iran is an Islamic state, it is not an Arab country. As such, Tehran has more in common with Israel than commonly supposed. The relationship between the two was always complicated, often strained, and rarely public, but the two nations cooperated until the fall of the Shah in 1979.

The Iranian revolution disrupted relations, but did not end contact. Radical was the rhetoric of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but practical were his policies. Notes Parsi: “In early 1980s, only months after the eruption of the hostage crisis, Ahmed Kashani, the youngest son of Grand Ayatollah Abol Qassem Kashani, who had played a key role in the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in 1951, visited Israel – most likely the first Iranian to do so after the revolution – to discuss arms sales and military cooperation against Iraq’s nuclear program at Osirak.”

Tehran was particularly interested in using Israel as a go-between with the U.S. in an attempt to get spare parts for its military arsenal during the lengthy and bloody war with Iraq. Iran’s relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a secular movement, were always tense. Throughout everything, including the Iran-Contra scandal, writes Parsi, “Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric remained intact though Tehran took no practical steps to act on it.”

Unfortunately, Washington lost no opportunity to miss an opportunity to open a dialogue with Tehran. The U.S. refused to invite Iran to the Madrid summit on Israel’s relations with Arab states and the Palestinians. This act of hubris, by which, in Parsi’s words, “Washington failed to appreciate Iran’s pragmatism, in particular Tehran’s new position on Israel, in which [Iranian President Hashemi] Rafsanjani had declared that Iran would agree to any solution acceptable to the Palestinians,” cost America greatly. It “strengthened the hands of Iranian rejectionists” and led Tehran “to seriously reach out to rejectionist Palestinian groups, in spite of the Shia-Sunni divide and their enmity dating back to the Iraq-Iran war.”

As Israeli policy shifted, so did Israel’s view of U.S.-Iranian relations. It’s an astonishing tale, and one that raises as many questions about Washington’s relations with Israel as with Iran. Explains Parsi: “The Israeli-U.S.-Iranian triangle had shifted remarkably in just a few years. In the 1980s, Israel was the unlikely defender of and apologist for Iran in Washington, taking great risks to pressure the Reagan administration to open up channels of communication with Iran. Now, Israel did the opposite. Israel wanted the United States to put Iran under economic and political siege.”

Israel was particularly alarmed at the thought that the election of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami as Iran’s president in 1997 would lead to détente between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately for America, the moment passed. Although success from opening contact was never guaranteed, today’s crisis might have been avoided.

Explains Parsi: “Ironically, the economic sanctions and the heightened rhetoric that the Clinton White House had put in place during its first term turned out to be the most difficult stumbling block to a rapprochement. While Tehran and Washington’s failure lay primarily in miscommunication, missed signals, and Iranian overconfidence, at every step Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby continued to put political obstacles in the path of Iran and the United States.”

This special pleading has left both America and Israel far worse off.

The Bush administration’s lost opportunities have been even worse. After 9/11 Tehran was helpful, in part because it had long opposed Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. President George W. Bush’s illogical “Axis of Evil” linking Iraq, North Korea, and Iran killed any chance of rapprochement.

Washington had another chance after its easy ouster of Saddam Hussein. In a proposal that “stunned the Americans,” reports Parsi:

“The Iranians offered to end their support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad – Iran’s ideological brethren in the struggle against the Jewish State – and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel. On Hezbollah, Iran’s own brainchild and its most reliable partner in the Arab world, the clerics offered to support the disarmament of the Lebanese militia and transform it into a purely political party. On the nuclear issue, intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of Iranian weaponization. The Iranians would sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they also offered extensive American involvement in the program as a further guarantee and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Tehran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organizations – above all, al-Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the United states to support political stabilization and establishment of democratic institutions and – most importantly – a nonreligious government.”

Tehran even accepted the 2002 Beirut Declaration. That is, the Saudi proposal advanced by the Arab League to recognize Israel in return for agreeing to a Palestinian state, withdrawal from the occupied territories, and a resolution of the problem of Palestinian refugees.

The Bush administration, enjoying a victory high and convinced regime change was but a finger flick away, said no. Washington even denounced the Swiss government for passing along the Iranian offer. The U.S. government didn’t want to talk to Iran. And the Bush administration didn’t want anyone to help Iran talk to America.

Four years have passed, and the administration’s Mideast policy is in ruins. Iraq is racked by sectarian war. Israel blundered into a lost war against Hezbollah. Dreams of democracy across the Mideast have gone aglimmering. Iran’s chief enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, have been defeated, and a friendly regime is in power in Baghdad. Iran, not the U.S., now is riding high. Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister told Parsi: “Iraq couldn’t have turned out better for us.”

Heck’uva job, Georgie.

What to do now? Washington’s options are limited. “One fantasy in which the Bush White House has invested much energy and hope is regime-change in Iran,” writes Parsi. It would be great, of course, but Washington hopes do not create Iranian realities. And even democracy in Iran might not end Tehran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

The worst option, of course, is military action. True, all of the analysts, politicians, pundits, and ivory tower analysts who were wrong about Iraq believe that this time war would be easy. But no serious person should take them seriously.

An attack “would be extremely risky, and even if it were to succeed the costs would be staggering,” explains Parsi. The mind boggles at the potential consequences, especially since even successful airstrikes might only delay Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

Parsi advocates “regional integration and collective security.” He is optimistic, though there’s obviously no guarantee of success. But Parsi surely is correct that the only hope of resolving the variety of conflicts between Washington and Tehran is for the U.S. to accommodate “legitimate Iranian security objectives in return for Iranian concessions on various regional and international issues.” We have moved well beyond the time when Washington could attempt to dictate an outcome. That dream died as the consequences of the administration’s incompetent arrogance in Iraq became evident to all the world.

Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance is valuable as a historical reference, detailing a fascinating relationship between Iran and Israel that is not widely known. But his analysis is even more important as a tool to inform policymakers attempting to fashion Mideast policy. No where has the Bush administration failed more dramatically and disastrously. No where is sound thinking more desperately needed. We can only hope, and pray, that someone in Washington listens before it is too late.

Read more by Doug Bandow