‘To engage Iran’ was once a controversial campaign issue, now it is imminent policy. Its proponents envision a grand bargain at the end of the diplomatic rainbow that somehow ties up all the regional loose ends of Hamas, Hezbollah, Afghanistan, Iraq and a regional race for nukes whose threads lead back to Tehran.
I’d like to offer a few Iraq-related questions that the ‘Iran-engagers’ should ponder:
1-What does Iran have to bargain with in Iraq? What can Iran offer the United States? No one disputes that elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard trained, armed and funded leaders of the Mahdi Army towards the primary purpose of attacking Coalition forces in Iraq, and the secondary aim of waging reprisal killings against Sunni civilians. Today, Iran harbors many of those leaders, providing refuge after the Iraqi state, together with the Americans, mercilessly went after them and broke up their networks. Other Iraqi actors who had received funding and logistics from the Iranians, such as the Hakim family and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, do not seem to be a security risk to either the Americans or the Iraqi people. That leaves the rogue Mahdi Army units Iran controls as the only lever that could destabilize the Iraqi state. It is that threat to Iraq’s destiny that must be acknowledged and mollified, the ‘Iran-engagers’ argue.
Yet despite Iranian disinformation efforts suggesting that it was they who deigned to give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government a respite by brokering a cease-fire and sending the sleeper cells underground, pending activation at a moment of Iran’s choosing—talking points amplified through Western reporters covering events in Iraq—no one can demonstrate that these networks are even remotely near the capability they once boasted before their showdown a year ago with the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi military and security arms are now too confident and intimidating to be challenged directly. Therefore, Iran’s ace card is worthless, since we’re not playing cards anymore. If so, what is Iran supposed to offer? Handing back the militia leaders? Whether these leaders are in an Iraqi prison or in a walled-off compound in northern Tehran is irrelevant as long as they can’t inspire and manage violence; Iran’s ability to foment more trouble in Iraq is an empty bluff.
And if Iran can’t offer anything on Iraq, is it possible that the ‘Iran-engagers’ had in mind offering Iraq to Iran? After all the blood and treasure spent, would America casually hand over the world’s largest oil reserves (according to the Iraqi government’s numbers) and one of the region’s most influential cultural hubs, just to placate the Iranians? And in exchange for what? Hamas? Doesn’t seem like a wise trade-off, does it now?
2-Was the Revolutionary Guards’ policy of enabling the Mahdi Army rogue in nature? This one seems clear enough: if the policy was rogue, then how would Iranian negotiators sitting across from the ‘Iran-engagers’ deliver on promises of holding it in check? ‘Iran-engagers’ get all misty-eyed when describing the labyrinthine convolutions of disparate Iranian power factions—moderates, conservatives, and all the shades in between—mistaking such ‘diversity’ of opinion for a quaint, local version of Oriental ‘democracy’. Setting aside aesthetic delusions, the ‘Iran-engagers’ need to tell us the means by which they will verify that the ‘nice’ Iranians, the ones they hobnob and have tea with while exchanging poetic pleasantries, are supposed to control the ‘naughty’ Iranians who keep killing people. What if the Iranian regime is less of a misunderstood poet, and more of a schizoid mental patient, at once a danger to itself and to others? Keeping one’s fingers crossed behind one’s back is not a common sense defensive pose when one is in danger of being stabbed.
3-If the policy of destabilizing Iraq was not roguish at all but rather an element of a larger policy, then wouldn’t this be called blackmail? Did the Iranians consciously bleed the Americans in Iraq to get them to the negotiating table? In such a case, the ‘Iran-engagers’ need to tell us that paying off a blackmailer works, a task made more difficult since it flies against all that we’ve come to know about human nature at its darker hues. What is to stop the Iranians from resuming a true and tested method of blackmail right after their demands are met? Nothing, except their better natures—good luck basing a policy on that!
I’d like to see some answers to these questions before embarking on a radical change of course.
‘Iran-engagers’ like to cite Iran’s ancient character—national character this, national character that—as a rationale for why Iranian national dignity must be handled with care and its regime’s bad behavior left unruffled. Starting fires across the Middle East is simply a great civilization’s tantrum, a national pout demanding respect and recognition, we’re told. Asking provocative questions may result in more tantrums, heaven forbid!
I was told something else, and it is an unfortunate cultural stereotype about the Iranian character that many nations who’ve had to be neighbors with the Iranians seem to subscribe to: Iranians, so the characterization goes, are double-faced. There must be something to this stereotype if the Persians have failed to escape it after millennia of serving sugared tea and poetry.
Of course, stereotypes are frowned upon in polite company, and there’s no politer company than that of diplomats, hell bent as they are on striking deals with the world’s most unsavory villains. But would it hurt to keep it in mind while haggling, considering that the jury’s still out on whether Iran’s multiple poker-faces are mere duplicity, or plain old creepy schizophrenia?
Day by day at the negotiating table with the Iranians, we simply won’t know which one of their faces will show up.