A curious pattern characterizes the recent military adventures in the Middle East. Overwhelming and disproportionate force is utilized in the name of at least temporarily popular objective – combating terrorism, preventing WMD proliferation, restoring deterrence, bringing democracy and so on. But once the human costs and efficacy of attacks in terms of stated objectives begin to be questioned, the narrative shifts and the argument for the sustenance of war, refusal of ceasefire, or even the need for “victory” begins to rely on the line that if a certain party or organization in question is not crushed, all the extremist forces in the Middle East led by Iran will be emboldened.
The justification for the continuation of reckless and indefensible violence shifts and the putative objective becomes, above all, to ensure that Iran does not expand its influence in the region as the leader of regional “resistance.” Even if one objected to the initial military foray, it is said, there should be agreement that leaving the mess in the middle and not finishing the job – whatever that means – will lead to the worst of all possible worlds: an angrier crowd that is allowed to survive and cause mischief at the direction of hegemony-seeking Iran. In its latest version, we are told by no less a figure than Israeli president Shimon Peres, “Our goals are clear. We do not want to make Gaza a satellite of Iran.”
I am not going to dwell on the insanity and immorality of violence imposed on a defenseless people based on a future possibility. The callous squander of lives and livelihoods in Iraq, Lebanon, and now Gaza speak for themselves. And, as far as know, no one is claiming that the lengthening of violence in Iraq or Lebanon stopped the presumed process of emboldening Iran.
My bet, like almost everyone else’s at this point, is that whatever the result in Gaza, it will do little to shift the narrative one way or another. There is nothing in the cards that suggest that what has not worked in the past will magically work today.
Hamas as an organization is likely to survive. And in an era in which mere survival against what is perceived to be an uncontrolled Behemoth is considered victory, its fortunes or the fortunes of elements even more bent on “resistance” will rise within Palestinian politics and this will be considered yet another feather in Iran’s – or “the leader of the resistance camp” – cap; a feather Tehran’s bickering leaders will happily or grudgingly accept depending on circumstances and political positions probably with little concern or inability to do much for additional Palestinians who lose lives and are made miserable in their names.
Even if Hamas is dismantled - remember the PLO was also forced to pack its bags once and move to Tunis - there are still others left and a standing, even if presumably weakened Iran, will continue to be a problem. In the midst of an angry region, even the crushing defeat of a foe such as Hamas and sacrifice of a good number of people for the purpose of weakening Iran does not assure a strategic overhaul.
It is true that we are told that such a crushing may help build a better Middle East in which the adversary will be weakened and hence will become more pliant and passive. But common sense tells us that it is difficult for violence to give birth to passivity; not when it is watched in living rooms and squalors alike all over the world and in the Middle East.
But the narrative of emboldened Iran and the need to weaken it by crushing its so-called proxies persists because the picture of a threatening and emboldened Iran is not only necessary for a dysfunctional Israeli polity always in need of leaders showing their martial grit but also for another fight; the fight over how to deal with Iran.
As usual nothing occurs in a vacuum. In all the three countries heavily vested in the drama –Israel, the United States, and Iran – there are folks who for whatever reasons – it really doesn’t matter anymore whether the reasons are justified or not – are ideologically, institutionally, politically, and economically vested in the continuation of animosity.
Call them hardliners, hawks, radicals, demagogues, economic profiteers or ideologues, polarization is to their benefit and each has its own fears, including loss of power. They operate in the midst of societies in which the population is also divided – again for whatever reason - and they are contenders for influence. Theirs is politics of fear, worry, as well as actual and advocated violence. They are not necessarily a united bunch in their respective countries. In fact, in all three countries, the art of bickering has been perfected. But bickering should not be confused with withdrawal and lack of power.
At the same time, in all three polities, there are also a good number of people and leaders who are either tired of ideological thinking or just simply tired of the consequences of never-ending animosity. In Iran, ideologues were set aside for a few years and there is good reason to believe that the kind of politics and foreign policy that was practiced during those years would have had a better chance of lowering tensions in the region after 9/11 had the Bush Administration approached Iran in a more conciliatory manner than it did after the two countries cooperation based on their shared interest in Afghanistan.
But bygones are bygones. What is at hand today is that a reformist or pragmatist is the elected president of the United States backed by a good chunk of American people who have invested in him their hope for re-direction, common sense, and human decency.
For someone like me, an Iranian-American with vested interest in the reconciliation of the two parts of my identity – for mundane reasons such as easier travel and money exchange as well as bigger ones such as fear of a military attack against the rather large family I have left behind - the question is whether trends in the United States will have a better chance at lowering tensions and reducing violence.
The answer obviously rests not in who Obama is - notwithstanding his palpable human decency that has allowed many us to pin our hopes on him - but what he does. It is not the question of goodwill begets goodwill, as George Bush the father once famously said but whether still the most powerful country in the world can lead by setting example and itself becoming less ideological, violent, and insecure at a time of global economic crisis that is bound to get worse; whether the United States can become a more or less competent seeker of solutions or will it remain wedded to and chained by reactive and reactionary institutions and ideas and dysfunctional relationships.
Having watched Iranian politics and foreign policy closely for years, I am convinced that despite all the hurled insults and maneuvering, a change of direction in American foreign policy will impact Iran in significant ways. Iranian leaders of all variety have been sending messages that they are ready to engage in serious conversation about redefining Iran’s role in US’ regional policies. The point they are trying to make is that instead of the attempted pitting of the region against Iran and search for security at its expense, the United States will be better off accepting Iran’s appropriate regional role which should be commensurate with its geographical size, resources, and regional political clout.
Tehran’s reaction to events in Gaza confirm this message and has included a combination of theatrics, genuine expression of sorrow, a bit of diplomacy - much of it with Syria which has a bigger stake in the Israeli-Gaza conflict and Turkey which also has a bigger stake because of its close relations with Israel in the face of a population angered by the Gaza tragedy - and a good dose of wait and see attitude. This is a bed Israelis have made for themselves and they are the ones that have to figure out a way to tidy it. This is why Iran's chief of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corp (IRGC) rather calmly rules out providing military support to Hamas, saying "Gazan resistance does not need other countries' military help."
Iranian leaders are not stupid. They also worry about Israel being "emboldened.” But generally speaking they think that Israel is digging its own grave by going into Gaza. This is what Iran’s president Mahmud Ahmadinejad means when he says that Israel will wither away in the pages of history; it will fall based on its own contradictions and policies.
Iran's game is one of expression of genuine anger and resentment - it is hard to be from that part of the world and not be angry at what is being seen on television - and playing to the crowd. On this latter front, the real targets are Arab regimes - Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and not Israel per se. The intent is to use the support for Iran's anti-Israeli position in the Arab street as an instrument in preventing the creation of anti-Iranian front by Arab governments. Iran’s leaders would be stupid and delinquent to only play the wait and see game and ignore the possibility that the Obama administration will essentially follow the Bush Administration policy of trying to pit the region against Iran and search for security at its expense.
But playing to the crowds has its limits, at least inside Iran. People were encouraged to demonstrate and volunteer to be sent to Gaza after supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared that anyone dying for the cause of Gaza will be considered a martyr. But after the demonstrations began to entail attacks of foreign embassies, they had to be told publicly by his representative to the universities to calm down and respect international laws and treaties.
And when volunteers for Gaza sat in Tehran airport and angrily demanded from government officials to be sent to Gaza “to fulfill the leader’s command,” again they were told in no uncertain terms by that their task was conscious-raising and moral support. The supreme leader himself acknowledged Iran’s hands were tied while blessing and thanking the volunteers for their dedication in a simple one liner.
The bottom line message: Palestine is not as important to us as you think. It only becomes important for ideological purposes and in response to what we consider to be attempts that are intended to create regime or territorial insecurity. If you don’t believe us, just compare our energetic behavior and policies in Iraq and Afghanistan – countries of high interest for security reasons – to our rather lackadaisical approach to the Gaza conflict.
Another message: We are not about to let excited crowds run our foreign policy.
As is often the case, the Iranian regime may be over-playing its hands and expecting too much. Perhaps the Bush Administration’s support for the continuation of violence in Gaza is intended as a parting gift to Obama. A crushed Hamas, the thought goes, will weaken Iran’s hand in the impending talks with the Untied States and as such must be accepted as an Israeli gift. Surely the people of Gaza are the not first sacrificed at the altar of geopolitics.
Given the added drop in oil prices and the disaster Ahmadinejad’s presidency has brought to the Iranian economy, the Obama Administration may even be tempted to go further and play hard ball, thinking that a weaker Iran is an Iran that will finally say yes to demands that it has said no to throughout the Bush Administration.
Within this frame, Obama’s new Iran policy will just be a variation of the policies that have been going on for many years. In this new iteration, the presumption is that a little more pressure along with more incentives will do the trick. Perhaps! One can never speak in absolute terms about the future.
But if it doesn't, we will be facing an uglier Iran in the future that is bound to be even more restrictive at home and problematic in the region, indeed risking war. In short, a weakened Iran pressured to do what it does not want to do, in all likelihood, will also be an angrier and more hard-line Iran.
Those of us who advocate some sort of compromise with Iran, based on a process of give and take, do so on the premise that such a compromise will be good for Iran, the United States and ultimately the region because it will have to be based on a process in which broad spectrums of the public and elite in both countries end up being okay with the compromise.
Reaching such an acceptance inside Iran is harder because it is the country under pressure to give in on what its broad public considers a right. Even if Iran's leaders buckle under, without such an acceptance, a group of unhappy trouble makers will continue to exist, constantly intent to undermine the new equilibrium which to them will be mainly a concrete and unhappy manifestation of the American will egged by the Israelis. Were these folks an insignificant member of the Iranian society, in terms of numbers and power, I wouldn't worry. But they are not.
The Obama Administration can continue to ignore this domestic predicament and negotiate in order to put Iran in its place in the same way the Israelis and its American enablers have continued to ignore the Palestinian predicament and reality of occupation and have repeatedly pinned their hope on breaking the Palestinian will to resist.
Or, it can change course. It can seriously begin approaching the region with the objective of solving conflicts, rather than picking fights and sides. It will of course not be easy to go against interests that are vested in conflict. But given the disaster that the Middle East has become, no one is asking for a lot at this point; just a sense that a different kind of approach is being contemplated and hopefully tried.