Iranian Hegemony: What’s Not to Like?

This week’s kerfuffle over Iranian President Ahmadinjad’s speech to Columbia University and his request to go to Ground Zero indicates that we, as a country, have indeed bought tickets to absurdistan. I was in New York City for the dustup, rousting editors from their desks and pitching stories, so I got to see the crazy headlines and massive mediagasm.

“The Evil Has Landed” screamed the New York Daily News. “NYers In Rage over ‘Tehran’ting Lunatic” exclaimed the New York Post. (Why not “‘Iran’ting Lunatic”?) Overall, it was a week of ugly intolerance for even the idea of discussion. Apparently some things are out of bounds even to talk about, and allowing the Iranian president to present his views was well beyond the pale.

Which is a shame, considering how necessary Iran is to the United States’ plans in the Middle East. Iran is a major power that has its own interests which could be brought in line — a little, at least — with America’s. So, just to be a little bit naughtier than the New York tabloids, let’s talk about an idea that’s probably beyond discussion. Given the charges that Iran is on the march across the Middle East, is looking to “take it over” and drive the United States back into its own hemisphere what’s so bad about Iranian hegemony?

To answer that question, we first have to ask a more basic one: What does Iran really want? Most observers, including the noted Iran scholar Vali Nasr, believe Tehran wants Washington to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf as its “near abroad” — “a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine the ebbs and flows of politics unencumbered by American interferance.” Tehran also wants its presence in in Syria and Lebanon recognized.

It’s not like it’s never happened before. More than 2,500 years ago, Persia was the world’s first superpower and threatened Greece for its upstart refusal to bow to Xerxes, king of kings. Its empire stretched from the Ganges to Macedonia — the greatest empire the world had known. Rich and powerful, it brought culture and civilization to millions. It wasn’t an enlightened rule and Xerxes was a tyrant, but neither was it as bad as it could have been; subject people had considerable autonomy. (The Phoenicians, for example, were particularly nettlesome for the Persians, given they were the best sailors around and more or less ran the Persian navy in the Mediterranean. An invasion of Sicily was scuttled because the upstart Levantines decided they didn’t feel like doing it. Sicily never fell into the Persian orbit.)

Today’s Iran is, of course, a different thing. The knee-jerk response among the neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz set is that they’re a terrorist regime, so screw ’em. But it’s a bad idea to dismiss Iranian concerns over their influence in a region where they have traditionally had a great deal of sway. Imagine if someone tried that with, say, Latin America and the U.S. So again, what would be so bad about Iranian hegemony or, more accurately, the accommodation of Iranian interests and influence throughout the region? Can working with the Iranians instead of against them be a form of diplomatic jujitsu?

First of all, Iran already has more influence in Iraq and Afghanistan than America does. Especially in Iraq, it’s got more chips in the game and more players on the field, able to move them at will and check American ambitions to turn Iraq into a friendly bulwark against Iran. (Under Saddam Hussein it was an unfriendly bulwark against Iran.) But if President Bush continues on his quest to reformulate his Middle East policy as one that promotes stability instead of democracy, the U.S. and Iran will have a joint interest.

“The Iranians are very eager to replace the United States as a regional leader,” says Trita Parsi, an Iranian specialist and author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.” “But that’s not necessarily bad news.”

Much of American policy in the Middle East has been a zero-sum, balance of power arrangement, where the U.S. supported regimes such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while Iran backed Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. Each country is the leader of its own bloc of allies, but it’s a costly form of leadership, Parsi says, because it doesn’t allow for any kind of collective security like you find in Europe. And while he admits the Middle East is “a long, long way from that, so was Europe in 1945, but we did it.” War between European states is now inconceivable.

“The balance of power has created wars,” he says. “There hasn’t been peace in the region.”

Instead of attempting to lead rival blocs against one another, the U.S. should work with Iran to take its interests into account while at the same time demanding changes in behavior for that accommodation. For instance, in exchange for allowing it a large degree of influence in Baghdad and Lebanon, Washington could demand that Iran cease its military support for Hamas in Gaza and work to disarm Hezbollah so that it could turn into a full member of Lebanon’s political culture.

The losers in such an arrangement? Israel and Saudi Arabia, mostly. American and Israeli positions would no longer automatically be the law of the land, he says. “The Israelis would not be able to impose unilateral peace deals on the Palestinians.” And that, too, is a good thing in the long run. Instead of dictating peace terms to a resentful people, Israel would be forced to deal with the Palestinians on a more equal level. And a less aggressive Israel would take the wind out of the sails of the more militant anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who draw much of their support for their anti-Israeli stance.

Saudi Arabia would lose because when it’s not allied with the United States to contain Iraq, it’s trying to counter Iran. A U.S. and Iranian rapprochement means Riyadh can say goodbye to some of those sweetheart arms deals.

It should be noted that a similar arrangement with Iran was offered, by Iran, in 2003. Iran offered to end military support for Hezbollah and Hamas and work to stabilize Iraq in exchange for an end to hostility from the U.S. and an end to sanctions. The State Department was reportedly keen to followup on the offer, but Vice President Dick Cheney nixed it.

So while there’s no easy answer or path forward to working with Iran, accepting that they have legitimate interests in the region could go a long way toward calming the place down. But Iran has to accept that the U.S. has interests, too, and those need to be taken into account as well. If the U.S. steps away from the zero-sum politics of the last 28 years, then Iran has a responsibility to do so as well.

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