Defusing Tension in the Middle East

At their board meeting in Vienna next week, the directors of the International Atomic Energy

Agency will consider whether a scenario that has long haunted Western capitals has now become an unmistakable reality – the pursuit by the mullah’s regime in Iran of a nuclear warhead that would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East and could perhaps find its way into the hands of some sinister third parties.

Although the outcome of the meeting is still far from certain, it still seems likely that without a smoking gun, and lacking some of the key information it needs, the IAEA directors may have to let Iran off the hook and fend off any pressure from Washington to declare a breach of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol, which Tehran signed up to last December. But while this may seem something of an anticlimax, such an outcome will, unfortunately, heighten the already dangerous and destabilizing state of mistrust that already exists between Iran and the U.S.

In Washington there will be despair at the perceived failure of the IAEA to detect a program the Americans feel sure exists, while in Iran there will be renewed and perhaps justified fears that Washington and Tel Aviv will take the law into their own hands and strike their nuclear facilities.

This means that a classic Catch-22 situation could soon develop if Tehran is tempted to take defensive measures that America will then see as aggressive and provocative.

Such mistrust would also have unfortunate consequences for ordinary Iranians, since conservative hardliners have long proved adept at using foreign threats to rally the political nation to their cause and portray reformists and their bid for democracy as part of a sinister Western conspiracy.

Given too the volatile state of affairs in Iraq, and the likelihood that responsibility for any sudden upsurge of violence could easily be pinned upon Tehran, there has rarely been a moment of more pressing need for both capitals to defuse the political tension that lies between them. But are there any politically realistic ways of building such trust, ones that Western governments can pursue while at the same time making clear their concern about the warheads?

A clue comes from the “earthquake diplomacy” that was briefly established after last December’s disaster at the southern Iranian city of Bam, where tens of thousands died. Twenty-four years after cutting off all diplomatic contact, the U.S. agreed to send medical and disaster relief teams and to suspend some economic sanctions, while Senator Elizabeth Dole got ready to lead a U.S. delegation to Iran that would have paved the way to more formal diplomatic relations. “What we’re doing is showing the Iranians that the American people care,” as the President announced, “that we’ve got great compassion for human suffering.”

Dialogue would at least have been a starting point, infinitely preferable to the lamentable state of mistrust we find now. But although ordinary Iranians have long wanted this contact, it was vetoed by conservative factions, keen to stop their reformist rivals from stealing the credit for establishing any such relations. The U.S. has “the duplicitous policy of creating a rift between the Iranian people and its government,” announced Iran state radio after Tehran turned down the Dole proposal, “and our people’s solidarity would stop it.”

There is one similar step, however, that the mullahs would find much harder to reject. If they accepted U.S. humanitarian assistance to alleviate their own suffering, how could they turn down any similar proposal to work alongside Americans to help ordinary Palestinian civilians caught in Arab-Israeli crossfire? The deeply entrenched Israeli lobby in Washington could not reasonably object to such a move, one that would of course immensely benefit America’s image in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds at a time when, after Abu Ghraib, she desperately needs to. But it would have particularly powerful repercussions inside Iran where the current regime, from its inception in 1979, has always claimed to hold the Palestinian cause close to its heart, and such is the perceived strength of the relationship that the mullahs could not turn down any such U.S. proposal without suffering a huge loss of face. For the same reason, American involvement in such a project would make the core values of the revolution seem even more hopelessly outdated than ever, thereby inspiring ordinary Iranians to clamor for change even more vociferously.

From this simple beginning great things might emerge. Such cooperation could easily create new diplomatic openings and raise hope amongst Iranians of the lifting of economic sanctions – provided that the regime cooperates with the IAEA’s snap inspections. No guarantee that this would tempt the mullahs, of course, or create an overwhelming demand for compliance with their nuclear obligations. But amidst talk of U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear installations, and with the prospect of unrest and violence in neighboring Iraq being blamed upon Iranian soldiers and “agents,” the outcome of any such U.S.-Iranian joint venture to help Palestinians is hardly likely to make things any worse than they are now.