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December 07, 2006 Edition 45

Lessons for a "Grand Bargain" with Iran and Syria
Anouar Boukhars

It was Yitzhak Rabin, the tough-fisted, uncompromising professional soldier, who transformed Yasser Arafat, the alleged "arch-terrorist" into a partner for peace. As difficult as Rabin found it to engage Arafat, he understood as the Israeli writer David Grossman stated, "that life in a constant climate of violence, of occupation, of terror and fear and hopelessness, comes at a price that Israel cannot afford to pay."

Articles in this edition
First build confidence - Sadegh Zibakalam
Concentrate on the Syrian-Israeli issue - Murhaf Jouejati
Lessons for a "Grand Bargain" with Iran and Syria - Anouar Boukhars
What about the Iraqi Kurds? - Henri J. Barkey
When Ronald Reagan proclaimed the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" in his own tough and undiplomatic fashion, his disdain for communism did not prevent him from negotiating agreements with it on arms control and other issues. And it was also mutual self-interest that brought Washington and Beijing together in a monumental meeting that the astute statesman and disgraced politician Richard Nixon called "the week that changed the world" back in 1972.

Nixon's diplomatic coup de maitre was an example of shrewd analysis of the great game that transformed superpower politics. By putting strategic interest ahead of ideological zeal and tactical talks, Nixon and his Machiavellian national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, pulled off a brilliant US diplomatic coup that turned out to be more important to the international balance of power than the loss of Vietnam to the communists.

Another brilliant stroke of policy was the so-called Helsinki Process that put human rights in a security framework. Launched in 1972 and culminating in the formation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, this multilateral framework between the Soviet-bloc countries and the democratic West transformed the agenda of East-West relations by providing a shrewdly comprehensive, political-military definition of security that enshrined sovereign equality, inviolability of frontiers, and respect for fundamental freedoms. Kissinger's brilliance stemmed from his realization that acceptance of the Soviet bloc's legitimate security concerns was crucial to winning Soviet agreement to Article 7 of the Helsinki Accords on respect for human rights that ultimately undermined the communist system.

Such constructive dialogues with adversaries are a great American tradition. But much of what is said or written about such dialogues in the post 9/11 world is unfortunately grounded in ideology and/or wishful thinking. The US won't talk to Iran and Syria until both nations alter their behavior. The Bush administration thinks that the only time it can talk to its enemies is when it can achieve through dialogue what it could not get through military threats and other coercive policies. But it is unrealistic to expect the Syrians to abandon Hamas, Hizballah, Iran and other groups that have been critical to the country's strategic posture unless they get credible incentives in return.

Syria's obstructionist policies and political calculations derive largely from the regime's perception of the US as an obstructionist force on Arab-Israel issues and regional stability. President Bashar Assad has hinted on many occasions that peace is his preferred strategic option but that peace will not come about unless the problem of Syria's undefined international borders is resolved. The most coveted quid pro quo Syria wants is not a reassertion of its control over Lebanon as many of its detractors trumpet incessantly but the return of the Golan Heights that Israel conquered in 1967.

The recent violent confrontations and political turmoil in the Middle East have underscored once again that a new Middle East will not emerge without the establishment of secure, just and recognized international borders between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The greatest contribution the Bush administration could make to the region is to create a context for a broad settlement of the Syrian-Israeli conflict in which support for radicalism and Assad's strategic interests no longer align. There is no doubt that a lasting Israeli-Syrian peace would go a long way toward de-radicalizing the regional order and depriving the Syrian Baathist regime of an issue it has long used to deflect calls for democratic change. If Assad is willing to respect Lebanese sovereignty and use his influence over Hamas, Hizballah and Sunni insurgent groups in a constructive manner, the United States and Europe should reciprocate by accommodating the country's legitimate rights and offering Assad a package of incentives he could not refuse.

The same applies to Iran. The Bush administration needs a strategic reassessment of its relations with Tehran that transcends simplistic and war-mongering rhetoric to include mutual security guarantees and arms control pacts. Engaging Iran in a manner that affirms its legitimate security concerns and right to pursue civilian nuclear power, while ensuring respect for nonproliferation and human rights norms, could provide the impetus for a settlement of the Iranian-American conflict. To pursue this agenda, the United States should adopt a broad political, cultural, and economic policy reminiscent of its engagement of the Soviet bloc in the Helsinki process which included a "security basket" that recognized the Soviet Union as a great power with legitimate global interests and a "human rights basket" that opened its domestic system to human rights norms.

It may seem repelling to engage an Iranian regime headed by a president whose absurd denials of the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel clearly disqualify him from being a partner in any potential negotiations. But it is important to understand the subtle power struggle going on within Iran and the potential for a further divide of an already fragmented regime. By making a public offer to Iran that the regime cannot refuse, America's diplomatic maneuver would corner the regime into either refusing a deal most Iranians support or force it to compromise by opening its domestic system to democratic and human rights norms that would eventually undermine the clerical system in the same way that communism was undermined by the Helsinki accords.

Today US President George W. Bush needs a grand strategy for the Middle East that deals with interrelated problems in the region. "Unless a president sets his own priorities, his priorities will be set by others--by adversaries, or the crisis of the moment. American policy can become random and reactive--untethered to the interests of our country." These were the words of then candidate George W. Bush who ridiculed Clinton for his poor foreign policy decisions that led "our nation to move from crisis to crisis like a cork in a current." It is ironic that Bush failed to heed his own caution of drifting from crisis to crisis without clear priorities.- Published 7/12/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org

Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College in Maryland.

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