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Waiting for a Nixon moment

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Jan 16, 2008
Waiting for a Nixon moment
By William Choong, For The Straits Times

CANBERRA - IN FEBRUARY 1972, US president Richard Nixon pulled off a brilliant coup when he initiated talks with Chinese leaders that ended 25 years of Sino-American hostility.
His historic effort was shrouded in secrecy because it challenged the collective wisdom of the American foreign policy establishment, which was consumed by ideological hatred of the Chinese communists following previous confrontations in the Korean War in the early 1950s and in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

In his memoirs, Nixon recalled how his anxieties vanished as soon as he entered Mao Zedong's study in Zhongnanhai, the seat of China's government.

'He stretched out his hand. So did I. He shook my hand for as long as about one minute,' Nixon wrote.

The symbolic handshake reaped enormous benefits.

The United States forged a new relationship with China to balance the Soviet Union, thus enabling defeated US military forces to exit Vietnam. More importantly, Beijing and Washington forged a new order for Asia centred on the future of Japan, the two Koreas and India.

As US President George W. Bush winds up his Middle East tour this week, what the region needs is another Nixon moment to break America's long-running diplomatic logjam with Iran.

Since the hostage crisis of 1979, US officials have viewed Iranian leaders as the personification of evil. This has culminated in attempts to curb Teheran's alleged nuclear ambitions through the building of an anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East.

Like the historic Nixon-Mao rapprochement in the 1970s, however, the US needs to replace its ideological hatred of Iran with clear-eyed realpolitik to solve many problems in the region.

The US and Iran are not natural allies, but like China and the US in the early 1970s, they have shared interests.

Both Washington and Teheran are against Al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan. Both want stability in Iraq.

During the war in Afghanistan, Iran even acted as Washington's de facto ally.

Mr Kenneth Pollack, a Persian Gulf expert and former CIA analyst, notes that during the war in Afghanistan, Iran provided the US with assistance on intelligence, diplomacy and Afghan internal politics.

After the US turned its sights on Saddam Hussein, the Iranians suggested that they were willing to cooperate on that too. But the offer was rejected by Washington.

Few would also remember that Iran was one of two places in the Muslim world where there was a widespread outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the Sept 11 attacks in 2001 (The other place was Karachi in Pakistan).

US engagement, however, does not mean that Iran is seen to be a saint. Teheran continues to threaten Israel using Hamas and Hizbollah, and to plague US forces in Iraq. Its alleged nuclear ambitions also pose a danger to stability in the region.

These factors, however, should not preclude engagement.

During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the US complicitly supplied arms to both sides to prevent a dominant power from emerging in the region.

Currently, the US pursues the opposite of engagement, seeking to contain Teheran through an anti-Iran coalition.

But containment of Shi'ite Iran is beset with problems.

America's attempt to contain Iran through an anti-Iran coalition in the 1980s led to a radicalised Sunni political culture in the region that eventually yielded Al-Qaeda, say analysts.

Moreover, America's containment of Iran is based on the latter's alleged nuclear ambitions, which the US intelligence community now concedes are less extensive than previously reported.

In its latest National Intelligence Estimate issued last month, the community reported that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

Wrote Strategic Forecasting, a US-based commercial intelligence firm: 'The Bush administration made Iran's nuclear weapons programme the main reason for its attempt to create an international coalition against Iran, on the premise that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable.

'If there is no Iranian nuclear programme, then what is the rationale for the coalition (to contain Iran)?'

(That said, the Iranian nuclear programme - even if it does exist - was never the key issue. While US deterrence of Iran is not perfect, Teheran knows well enough the consequences of lobbing a handful of nukes at Israel or US forces in the region. Washington's key goal now, like the 1980s, is preventing the emergence of another dominant power in the region.)

American rapprochement with Iran would become possible if Washington were to adhere to the classic dictum of knowing one's enemy.

The dominant worldview of Iran's leaders is the perception of being surrounded by US military forces, writes Dr Houman Sadri, a scholar who has spoken to Iranian officials and scholars inside and outside Iran.

'As a Revolutionary Guard officer once expressed to me while discussing Iran's security situation depicted on a map on his office wall, most Iranian leaders now share, with increasing anxiety, the common view that the US is following a policy of gradually encircling Iran with hostile American forces based in neighbouring countries,' wrote Dr Sadri in an article published in the journal Military Review.

Thirty years ago, the US had only a handful of military bases in the region - ironically in Iran itself. Today, US bases are located in nearly all of Iran's neighbouring states - Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey.

Such an understanding of Iran's vulnerable position should have pushed the US to engage Iran. But the baggage resulting from the 1979 hostage crisis has led Washington to reject a series of diplomatic overtures from Iran.

Last year, a top Iranian official told CNN that Teheran wanted cooperation, not confrontation, with Washington.

'We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war. But we don't know whether the same is true in the US or not. If the same is true on the US side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action - war,' the unnamed official said.

This truth only became too evident in the recent confrontation between US Navy ships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats in the Strait of Hormuz. The lack of a formal line of communications between the US Navy and its Iranian counterparts could easily have led to war.

Earlier this month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told a group of students that he did not rule out a resumption of ties with the US in the future.

A first step towards engagement would be an acknowledgment by Washington that Teheran does indeed have legitimate interests and concerns in Iraq, argue Mr Vali Nasr and Mr Ray Takeyh in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

This would get the two governments to finally realise that they have similar objectives: preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and preventing the civil war there from engulfing the Middle East.

This in turn would be twinned with a 'new regional order' that will rest on, among other things, a treaty pledging the inviolability of the region's borders, arms control pacts proscribing certain categories of weapons, and a common market with free trade zones.

'Engaging Iran while regulating its rising power within an inclusive regional security arrangement is the best way of stabilising Iraq, placating the United States' Arab allies, helping along the Arab-Israeli peace process, and even giving a new direction to negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme,' wrote Mr Nasr and Mr Takeyh.

'Because this approach includes all the relevant players, it is also the most sustainable and the least taxing strategy for the United States in the Middle East.'

For now, however, there is little of Nixon's hard-headed pragmatism in American policy towards Iran.

The Bush administration has promised extensive talks only if Iran satisfies its demands over the disclosure of its alleged nuclear programme.

The Iran policies of the current crop of US presidential candidates are also little different from that of Mr Bush.

Senator Hillary Clinton is seen to be hawkish on Iran. Likewise, Senator John McCain has changed the lyrics of the classic Beach Boys song Barbara Ann to describe how the US should Bomb Iran.

Only Democratic contender Barack Obama has displayed Nixonian overtures.

He has pledged to 'engage in aggressive personal diplomacy' with Iran, and offered economic inducements and a promise not to seek 'regime change' if Iran stopped meddling in Iraq and cooperated on terrorism and nuclear issues.

In addition, he has promised that forging a new relationship with Iran would be a major element of a broad effort to stabilise Iraq as he executes a speedy withdrawal of American combat troops.

The hope is that Mr Obama - if elected president - would, like Nixon, be able to secure another historic handshake. If not, a window of opportunity for another Nixon moment might well be closed.

The writer is doing a doctorate in strategic studies at the Australian National University.

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