By Bridget Moix
Can the recent return to diplomacy between Washington and Tehran be sustained, and even expanded to include broader regional issues, like curbing violence in Syria and Afghanistan? Or will the distrust of decades between the two nations prove too great an obstacle to real peacemaking?
Let’s first recognize the remarkable shift in relations that recent engagements between US and Iranian officials represent. Earlier this year, the two nations seemed on the brink of war. FCNL was lobbying hard that “war is not the answer” and to just keep the option of diplomacy on the table as the U.S. Congress imposed a continuous barrage of painful sanctions on Iran and the administration kept the door closed on direct engagement. The possibility of a US war against Iran seemed both real and urgent.
Fast forward to recent weeks and the specter of imminent war has been replaced by hopeful beginnings of relationship-building and direct engagement with the new Rouhani presidency. Whether these initial openings will translate into a real deal on Iran’s nuclear program, or, more ambitiously, new era of US-Middle East relations has yet to be seen. The obstacles to such transformation are certainly still high, and others in the region – including long-time US ally Saudi Arabia – view the thaw in relations with Iran as more threat than opportunity. But, the need for a serious rewrite of US policy in the Middle East is urgently needed.
On a whole range of issues of international peace and security – from Syria to Afghanistan to Israel-Palestine – the inability of the US and Iran to even speak to each other has been a critical obstacle to effective regional diplomacy and peacemaking. Restoring dialogue and rebuilding a sense of shared problem-solving between the two nations will not end the multiple crises shaking the region, but it can open more avenues for international diplomatic engagement on a range of critical issues, including the urgent humanitarian crisis unraveling in the region from the Syria conflict.
Successful diplomacy between the US and Iran will not be easy and cannot be rushed, but the table being set for a deal on nuclear power could be usefully expanded as a forum to discuss the need for shared solutions on other issues as well, including political settlements in Syria and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, decades of inconsistent policy in the region and support for abusive regimes will make truly inclusive dialogue with the US and other key regional leaders difficult.
To sustain progress with Iran and slowly open the door to addressing other regional issues, the US needs a new script for its Middle East foreign policy. This should begin with a serious commitment in deeds and words to pursuing peaceful negotiations and supporting the human rights of all peoples in the region. The US cannot continue to insist that some actors in the region do what it says, not what it does, and support others unquestioningly despite abusive behavior. Reducing US military aid to the region and reducing the US’s own military presence are also vital steps that could help demonstrate a real commitment to making diplomacy – not war – its new modus operandi in the region.
What can we do? Friends and others can support broader change to US policy in the Middle East by urging a “shared security” approach to diplomacy and engagement in the region. Perhaps nowhere else in the world are the fates of regional neighbors so tied up with each other – and with the US. As the possibility of real diplomacy opens, a shared security approach to US policy in the Middle East would advance cooperative problem-solving on a wide range of issues, help reshape relationships for the long term, and advance the human dignity of all.