Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Iraq can teach us about Iran |Going Forward in the middle East

What Iraq can teach us about Iran | Stephen M. Walt:

Looking ahead and at US policy in the Middle East and our relationship with Iran:

Ali A. Allawi has an interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, where he outlines the main challenges in post-occupation Iraq and maps out a broad approach for dealing with them. he says: "Iraq must reimagine the Middle East, creating new economic, security and political structures that weave Middle Eastern countries closer together while peacefully accommodating the region's ethnic and religious diversity.

In the American-Iranian cold war, Iraq must resist being dragged into a confrontation. We have real interests on both sides and can play an important role in mediating and even defusing that conflict.

Wait says that American foreign policy going forward in the Middle East could follow this advice as well as Iraq.

In essence, Allawi is saying that Iraq should strive to play a balance of power game in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, seeking good relations with all its neighbors, and adopt a creative and flexible approach to dealing with the diverse social and religious forces in the region. Such a strategy would not preclude Iraq tilting one way or the other as currents of power and interest shift, but it implies not allowing Iraq to get drawn into rigid alignments or permanent commitments that harden animosities or limit its diplomatic flexibility.

What struck me, however, was how Allawi's blueprint applies even more strongly to the United States. The United States is not a Persian Gulf state, and we have no interest in trying to run these countries. Instead, the United States has only three overriding strategic interests in the Gulf region: 1) make sure that Gulf oil and gas keeps flowing to world markets (even though the U.S. gets very little of its own energy from this region, a reduction in the global supply would send energy prices soaring), 2) discourage the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and 3) reduce the danger from anti-American terrorism. The best way to pursue these three objectives is to play balance-of-power politics ourselves: minimizing our military footprint in the region while striving to make sure that no single power dominates it and reducing incentives for anti-American terrorism or WMD proliferation.

Wait applies this general approach specifically to Iran:

It follows that the United States should be seeking to have good relations with as many states as possible -- so as to maximize its diplomatic options and resulting leverage -- and to do what it can to dampen regional tensions. (Note: this is also what Allawi advises Iraqis to do). From this perspective, a prolonged Cold War with Iran is in fact a policy failure (or at least not an achievement), even though avoiding one may be difficult given all that has already occurred. Our various "special relationships" in the region should be rethought as well, especially in light of the political upheavals that have been sweeping the region and rendering the future more difficult to forecast. In such circumstances, a smart great power would seek to maximize its options going forward, instead of being permanently and visibly committed to a status quo that is visibly shifting before our eyes.

Special relationships with Israel and confrontational relationships with Iran reduce our ability to reach the three objectives that are vital to our foreign interests. Of course this will require us to stop playing politics with our Middle East policy and possibly to consider having a a greater emphasis on diplomacy rather than brute force. Two recommendations from my side would be to get rid of the Drones and reexamine our investment in the State department. We should not have a Department of State whose total numbers of staff are less than you find in the Navy band.

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