The region needs a grand bargain with Iran

The region needs a grand bargain with Iran

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tehran. (Reuters)

Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook last week announced that the US was ready to “embrace peace,” despite the fresh sanctions Washington imposed on the Islamic Republic. Even though the sanctions are badly hurting the Iranian economy, one should not assume that the under-pressure regime will capitulate to American demands.

A capitulation might require a war. A war with Iran would be devastating to the region and it could be bloodier and more costly to the US than even the much-loathed war with Iraq. This is why diplomacy should be relaunched in parallel to the maximum pressure campaign. The Japanese represent a good mediator: They have relatively good relations with Iran and are not a Western power with a colonial past in the region. One might argue that the previous effort made by Abe Shinzo last year was rebuffed as a Japanese tankerwas attacked while the prime minister was meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. However, Abe went to Tehran as an emissary of US President Donald Trump. For the effort to be effective, Abe should go as an impartial mediator under the auspices of the UN.

Barack Obama and Trump have tried two different approaches. In Obama s view, offering economic incentives would ultimately push Iran to give up on its ideology and become peaceful. Trump, on the other hand, believes the opposite: He thinks coercing Iran using severe sanctions will force change. However, both approaches only look at the economic aspect; they don’t take into consideration Iran’s security or ideology. The region and the US need a grand bargain with Iran. In fact, Tehran has already expressed its openness to a wider deal. President Hassan Rouhaniexplicitly said, “If you want more you need to pay more,” while at the UN in New York last September.

The current administration is suggesting, among other conditions, that Iran needs give up its nuclear program, ballistic missiles and its regional militias in order to have the sanctions lifted. This is a nonstarter for negotiations. Those will happen simultaneously only if the regime collapses. However, regime change won’t happen peacefully. They will fight ferociously and will drag the region with them in this fight. The other option is behavioral change — this is possible if Iran is offered a deal that will allow the regime to save face and guarantee its security.

We also cannot forget that the Iranian political system is based on ideology. Supporters of the regime were told for years to offer personal sacrifices in order to achieve noble overall goals for the nation or the Ummah. The regime cannot now tell its supporters that it has given up on the revolution’s grand goal. It would lose legitimacy and that would ultimately mean the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ideology is at the helm of every policy put in place in Iran. This is why a graceful exit would require making it look like the regime had achieved its goal and the “export” phase of the revolution is complete. Since the main pillar of the export of the revolution has been the “liberation of Palestine,” a fair deal with the Palestinians based on UN resolutions and on the Arab peace initiative can offer the Iranian regime this graceful exit. This would also offer a plausible narrative for their proxies to lay down their arms and become political parties. Here, a monitoring mechanism should be put in place, as well as bilateral agreements with countries in the region, to make sure disarmament is accomplished.

The same way Iran is a threat to its neighbors, it feels threatened by them. The Iranian leadership keeps telling its people that, when Saddam Hussein disarmed, the Americans went into Iraq and took the country, and it has been chaos ever since. Even the Iranians who despise the regime believe that Iran needs and has the right to have a proper defense system. Instead of asking Iran to dismantle its arsenal, it is better to push toward confidence-building measures between Iran and its neighbors, where Iran declares its stock and allows visits to its military sites, while pre-notifying its neighbors of missile tests, and vice versa. Once all those concerns are handled, Iran should be invited to go back to the nuclear deal or a similar agreement. Maybe, as Rouhani suggested, Iran will enter a new agreement where the world pays more as a reward for its good behavior.

Instead of asking Iran to dismantle its arsenal, it is better to push toward confidence-building measures between Iran and its neighbors.

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

In order to clinch a deal with Iran, the US should put itself in the regime’s shoes. Tehran will not give up the leverage it has with its people and with the region unless it has guarantees that will secure its survival. A proper agreement should also streamline the points of contention Iran has with the countries in the region. This is why the Middle East needs a treaty similar to that of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 17th century Europe. The mediator’s first step would be to push Iran and Saudi Arabia to meet and iron out their differences. At a later stage, a wider congress involving the countries of the region should be organized.

As much as the effort seems complicated, it is worth trying. It would definitely be better to start work on a treaty today, while the situation is more or less under control, rather than go through a lengthy war before ultimately signing an agreement.

  • Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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