That Iran stands today able to challenge or even defy the United States in every sphere of American influence in the Middle East, attests to the dismal failure of the Bush administration’s policy toward it during the last six years. Feeling emboldened and unrestrained, Tehran may, however, miscalculate the consequences of its own actions, which could precipitate a catastrophic regional war. The Bush administration has less than a year to rein in Iran’s reckless behavior if it hopes to prevent such an ominous outcome and achieve, at least, a modicum of regional stability.
By all assessments, Iran has reaped the greatest benefits from the Iraq war. The war’s consequences and the American preoccupation with it have provided Iran with an historic opportunity to establish Shiite dominance in the region while aggressively pursue a nuclear weapon program to deter any challenge to its strategy. Tehran is fully cognizant that the successful pursuit of its regional hegemony has now become intertwined with the clout that a nuclear program bestows.
Therefore, it is most unlikely that Iran will give up its nuclear ambitions at this juncture, unless it concludes that the price will be too high to bear. That is, whereas before the Iraq war Washington could deal with Iran’s nuclear program by itself, now the Bush administration must also disabuse Iran of the belief that it can achieve its regional objectives with impunity.
Thus, while the administration attempts to stem the Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq to prevent it from engulfing other states in the region, Washington must also take a clear stand in Lebanon. Under no circumstances should Iranian-backed Hezbollah be allowed to topple the secular Lebanese government. If this were to occur, it would trigger not only a devastating civil war in Lebanon but a wider Sunni-Shiite bloody conflict.
The Arab Sunni states, especially, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are terrified of this possible outcome. For them Lebanon may well provide the litmus test of the administration’s resolve to inhibit Tehran’s adventurism but they must be prepared to directly support U.S. efforts.
In this regard, the Bush administration must wean Syria from Iran. This move is of paramount importance because not only could Syria end its political and logistical support for Hezbollah, but it could return Syria, which is predominantly Sunni, to the Arab-Sunni fold. Mr. Bush must realize that Damascus’s strategic interests are not compatible with Tehran’s and the el-Assad regime knows only too well its future political stability and economic prosperity depends on peace with Israel and normal relations with the United States.
President Assad may talk tough and embrace militancy as a policy tool, he is, however, the same president who called, more than once, for unconditional resumption of peace negotiation with Israel and was rebuffed. The stakes for the United States and its allies in the region are too high to preclude testing Syria’s real intentions which can be ascertained only through direct talks.
It is high time for the administration to reassess its policy toward Syria and begin by abandoning its schemes of regime change in Damascus. Syria simply matters; the administration must end its efforts to marginalize a country that can play such a pivotal role in changing the political dynamic for the better throughout the region.
Although ideally direct negotiation between the United States and Iran should be the first resort to resolve the nuclear issue, as long as Tehran does not feel seriously threatened, it seems unlikely that the clergy will at this stage end the nuclear program. In possession of nuclear weapons Iran will intimidate the larger Sunni Arab states in the region, bully smaller states into submission, threaten Israel’s very existence, use oil as a political weapon to blackmail the West, and instigate regional proliferation of nuclear weapons’ programs.
In short, if unchecked, Iran could plunge the Middle East into a deliberate or inadvertent nuclear conflagration. If we take the administration at its word that it would not tolerate a nuclear Iran and considering these regional implications, Washington is left with no choice but to warn Iran of the severe consequences of not halting its nuclear program.
Such a warning, however, cannot be ambiguous or open ended; rather, it should include a reasonable timeline (a few months) to allow the representatives of the EU — France, Germany, and England, perhaps with the support of Russia and China, to make a last-ditch effort. To prevent Iran from miscalculating the consequences of its own actions, the administration should back this warning with credible punitive measures that leave Iran in no doubt whatsoever of the consequences for defying the international community.
As it is, there is growing concerns inside Iran both about socio-economic conditions and President Ahmedinajad’s foreign policy provocations. American pressure at this time will not be taken lightly by Iran, which dreads major U.S. punitive measures.
By sending two air carriers to the region and undertaking other military and naval preparations, the administration seems to be moving in the right direction. What is needed now is a clearly articulated warning that sets the stage for what is to come.
Unlike the situation in Iraq before the invasion, Iran’s actions speak for themselves: Teheran openly pursues a nuclear program, nakedly supports terrorism, and poses a clear and present danger to the United States and its allies. The American public and Congress are supportive of the President’s moves, a fact that will not be lost on Tehran.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses in international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Visit alonben-meir.com