(AFP) Iran's Revolutionary Guards fire missiles during military manoeuvres in the central desert in 2006
In the past 4 weeks I have been in Washington, I heard people speak more of Iran than of the local Nationals baseball team, because the Nationals are not playing well and the Iranians are.
By Rami G. Khouri
WASHINGTON - If the tensions in the Middle East between the American-Israeli-led side and the Iranian-Syrian-led side were a baseball game, this would be the fourth inning of a regulation nine-inning game. The players are warmed up, and have had a good look at each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are now prepared to get to the nitty-gritty core of the contest.
The contest underway comprises arenas and means that transcend the simplistic but prevalent portrayal in Washington of Iran as a “problem” that must be resolved. Things are much more complex, and some of the subtle nuances are emerging for the first time.
In the past four weeks I have been in Washington, I have heard people speak more of Iran than of the local Nationals baseball team, because the Nationals are not playing well and the Iranians are. News coverage and discussions of the Iran-U.S. and Israel-Iran dynamics both shot up this week, due primarily to Iran’s testing of medium- and long-range missiles.
(Watch video: Iran tests more missiles)
Behind bellicose speculation of “Will the U.S./Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities?” and “How will Iran retaliate if it is attacked?” a much more interesting game of feints, hints and winks is taking place.
Earlier this week, the Iranian president said there would be no war with the U.S./Israel. The Iranian foreign minister said that Iran could consider the opening of a U.S. interests section in another embassy in Tehran. And, senior advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- the real power center in Iran -- made it clear that the latest offer from the major Western powers could be seen as basis for discussions and pre-negotiations of the nuclear issue and other matters.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would protect its allies and interests -- the foreign policy equivalent of being out in left field. Meanwhile, Iranian military officials said that they had their finger on the trigger at all times to protect their country.
What does all this add up to? I’d say it is a display of classic statecraft -- fighting and threatening while simultaneously sending signals of a desire to negotiate and make a deal. We are witnessing three simultaneous, important developments: The two loose camps linked to the United States and Iran have recognized that their respective power is limited, the other side will fight back fiercely, and they are roughly matched and tied on the ground throughout the Middle East. So, they both behave like normal countries for a change: fighting and talking at the same time.
An important step in this process was the testimony at a congressional hearing Wednesday by William Burns, the new Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the Department of State. Speaking on “The Strategic Challenge Posed by Iran” (“challenge” rather than “threat” -- nice touch, Bill), he made some important points that should be appreciated in the Middle East.
Noting that Iran was rather isolated and without many friends (among governments, at least) that could offer “strategic reassurance, vital investment, or a secure future in a globalized world,” he said that, “Our goal is to convince Iran to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions, cease its support for terrorist groups, and become a constructive partner in the region….
“We have made clear that we do not object to Iran playing an important role in the region, commensurate with its legitimate interests and capabilities, but also that Iran is far more likely to achieve its desired level of influence if it works with the international community and its neighbors, rather than if it works against them…. The dual-track strategy to which we often refer in connection with the nuclear file, in fact, applies more broadly...
"Engaging in a diplomatic process on the broad range of issues at stake between our two states and working toward the restoration of Iran’s relationship with the international community would offer clear benefits for Iran and the Iranian people…
“We should not let the Iranian leadership entrench itself on the false pretext that it is under threat from the outside. We have committed repeatedly and at the highest levels to deal diplomatically with the Iranian regime….
"As the recent presentation of yet another P5+1 offer makes clear, we do not exclude engagement. We remain ready to talk to Tehran about its nuclear program and the array of other American concerns about Iranian policies, as well as to address any issues Iran chooses to raise in a diplomatic context. The Iranians are not completely closed off, and neither should the United States be. Careful consideration suggests that in certain contexts, we should have overlapping interests with Iran…”
There is not much new substance here, but a slightly revised style and tone. The traditionally arrogant and insulting American rhetoric has been toned down a touch. Washington seems more cognizant of Iran’s reasonable desire to protect its legitimate national interests in the Middle East, and is willing to discuss issues that Iran brings to the table. Sounds to me like the players are warmed up and this game is just starting to get serious.
-- Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Source: Middle East Online