U.S. President Barack Obama's "new" strategy of dialogue with Iran is not that new but simply buys into a dangerous policy that many Europeans have long been pushing America to follow.
With his pledge of "a new emphasis on respect and a new willingness on being willing to talk," President Obama appears to have adopted a school of thought that believes that a nuclear-armed Iran is not necessarily a threat to Western interests.
While not officially linked together, what can be called the "Iran-centric school" of accommodating the mullahs comprises arguments made by writers such as Robert Malley (a former Obama adviser) together with Hussein Agha (a former Yasser Arafat adviser) in the New York Review of Books, by The Economist's Middle East correspondent Max Rodenbeck, by Vali Nasr (who was just appointed senior adviser to special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke) in his book the "The Shia Revival," and most comprehensively by Trita Parsi in his book the "Treacherous Alliance -- The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States." The argument of trying to find common ground with Tehran is also regularly made by high-ranking European diplomats to their American counterparts.
For example, the most important German political think tank, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), has long argued for intensifying bilateral talks with Iran. Volker Perthes, director of the SWP (and an adviser to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) has been calling for a "strategic partnership" with Iran since 2006.
Support for this school is increasingly found in academic and think-tank circles, and even among seasoned professionals at the U.S. Defense Department, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.
The Iran-centric school argues that it is necessary for America to form a close relationship with Iran. That's because Iranian hegemony in the Middle East is supposedly inevitable. Iran's success as an Islamic state, they claim, even managed to bridge the Sunni-Shiite divide as evidenced by the theocracy's alliance with both Hezbollah (Shiite) and Hamas (Sunni).
And given that -- unlike the Islamist fighters the U.S. is battling in Iraq -- the Iranian theocrats are successfully ruling both the spiritual and temporal, no military or "hearts and minds" strategy can supposedly defeat them. America's only real option, therefore, is to accept Iran's dominance.
The second part of the Iran-centric school's argument holds that the mullahs actually want a close relationship with the U.S. Since the Iran-Iraq war, they claim, the theocrats have been open to a close relationship with the U.S., believing that the two countries are natural partners who can transform the region to mutual benefit. Under this partnership, Iran would be given free rein in the region; in turn, Tehran would respect America's strategic interests and would no longer dedicate resources toward thwarting them.
According to the Iran-centric school, the reason a relationship has not yet developed is not because of a lack of willingness from Iran, but because successive U.S. presidents have failed to engage the theocrats. It is supposedly only because of this U.S. rejection that the theocrats have in turn enacted anti-Western policies.
Therefore, the Iran-centric school concludes, the U.S. needs to radically change its policies. For a start, the theocracy needs to be treated as an equal. This means negotiating with "respect" and without preconditions. The U.S. also must accept Iran's "legitimate" demands, including its "right" to a nuclear program -- which the mullahs, we are being reassured, would only use "responsibly."
Finally, all sanctions, divestment campaigns, covert operations and any Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities must be stopped. The same goes for sanctions against Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. By offering to negotiate with Tehran without any precondition, President Obama has started down this dangerous road.
A central flaw behind the school's argument is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Iranian regime. The school mistakenly views the theocracy as an ordinary state that simply seeks to maximize its power and is ultimately willing to live peacefully alongside non-Islamic countries. But the advocates of dialogue with Iran completely ignore the radical theology and goals underpinning the regime.
Iran's Islamic Revolution, from the day the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed to the rallies held today denouncing the "Big Satan," seeks a world-wide Muslim state modeled on the Islamic Republic. The regime's raison d'être is therefore incompatible with America's existence. The regime's founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, explained: "Today the world is thirsty for pure Islamic culture and the Muslims in a huge movement will quickly take over the white and red houses."
A second major flaw is the school's exaggeration of the success of the Iranian state. The mullahs' management of the economy has been a disaster, made worse by the recent fall in energy prices. The regime itself is extremely unpopular. That's why the mullahs rule through force and bar credible opponents from running in elections. As for bridging the Sunni-Shiite divide, an alliance with terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah should be viewed as the exception rather than the norm. More telling is the antagonistic relationship between Iran and the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The consequences of following the Iran-centric school's policies would be disastrous for the interests of America, Europe and their allies in the region. At a minimum it would mean Hamas control over Palestine and Hezbollah control over Lebanon -- ending any chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. America's allies Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would likely become subservient to a nuclear-powered Iran. Armed with the doomsday weapon, Iran might even be emboldened to topple the Saudi rulers to take control of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and the country's huge energy reserves.
The worst consequences would be reserved for Israel: The Iranian regime has stated more than once that it wants to destroy the Jewish state.
The good news is that President Obama has not yet taken any irreversible steps along the Iran-centric school's route. Those who do not want a nuclear Iran as the Middle East's hegemon will hope he realizes the school's fallacies before it is too late.