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The US needs to talk to Iran

The US needs to talk to Iran

To prevent the Israel-Gaza war from spreading and establish greater regional security, Washington needs to bring Tehran to the table.

Analysis | Middle East

As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, with horrifying humanitarian toll for the civilians in Gaza, the United States is continuing its unwavering support for Israel: it is not only sending Israel arms and shielding it from criticisms at the United Nations, but also boosting the deterrence against the so-called “axis of resistance,” which includes Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

The U.S. moves to show solidarity with Israel are understandable. However, unless they are complemented by a credible diplomatic strategy in pursuit of a comprehensive stabilization in the Middle East, not only will they fail to bring the U.S. any benefits, but, to the contrary, they would risk entangling it in a wider regional war. To prevent such a dire scenario, Washington should, in addition to its existing contacts in the region, launch a direct channel to Tehran and seek serious talks about the future not only of Gaza and Palestine, but the broader Middle East.

Since the war started on October 7, following Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel, Washington reportedly warned Tehran, through third parties, against expanding, either directly or through allies, the front against Israel. To deter Iran, Biden sent an attack submarine to the Persian Gulf, in addition to two aircraft carriers with warplanes and other military assets already dispatched to the region in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack.

The usual suspects in Washington were quick to jump on the war’s bandwagon to push for their favorite obsession: make it all about Iran. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), true to form, threatened military action to target Iran’s oil infrastructure. United Against Nuclear Iran, hawkish advocacy group, painted doomsday scenarios of impending multi-front “Iranian escalation” against Israel. And others like the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig fell back on a tired cliché of Iran and its allies being the principal source of all instability in the Middle East.

Making the Israel-Hamas war being all about Iran not only completely denies Palestinians’ own agency and conditions under the occupation. It also misreads actual Iranian policies, as opposed to the rhetoric.

As usual, Tehran presents a mix of ideology and pragmatic pursuit of national interest. Top officials, starting with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while expressing full support for Hamas, clearly emphasized that Iran had no operational role in the attack of October 7. Iran is not willing to confront Israel or the U.S. directly as such a conflict would be too destructive for it and its most prized assets in the region, like the Lebanese Hezbollah. Hence, Tehran insists that the “resistance front” has autonomy in its actions against Israel and the U.S.

Another factor that the rulers in Tehran need to take into account is that the Iranian population on the whole cares far more about the difficult economic conditions in their own country rather than Gaza. With the regime hard-liners doubling down on divisive policies, such as insistence on mandatory hijabs for women, the gap between the establishment and significant portion of the Iranian population is growing. Since the commitment to Palestine is one of the Islamic Republic’s enduring identity badges, it is not surprising that a growing disaffection with the system translates into a weaker support for Iran’s involvement in what many Iranians consider a foreign conflict.

The fact that Iran is compelled to act, so far, in a restrained fashion, opens a window of opportunity for some bold, creative diplomacy on the U.S. side. A true diplomatic effort should go far beyond sending warnings to Tehran through third parties like Qatar, Oman, or Iraq. It should include direct talks not only about how to end the war in Gaza, but also the outlines of a broader order in the Middle East.

Given the entrenched enmity between the U.S. and Iran, it may seem like a tall order. Yet, as international relations scholar Stephen Walt reminds us, some of the roots of the current situation could be traced to the Madrid peace conference on the Middle East in 1991 and subsequent Oslo agreements on Palestine. While crediting then-President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James Baker with a serious effort to bring peace to the Middle East, Walt points to a fatal flaw of the Madrid/Oslo process: the exclusion of Iran and the whole “rejectionist” front from the discussions, which only incentivized Iran to act as a spoiler against a regional order that was being shaped explicitly against its interests.

Importantly, that happened at a time when Iran, exhausted by the long, brutal war with Iraq and under the pragmatic presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was showing signs of moderation and willingness to re-engage with the U.S. Rebuffed, Iran turned to Islamic Jihad and other extremist Palestinian groups that contributed to a collapse of the peace process.

As the U.S. and its allies ponder their next steps, they should avoid repeating the same fatal mistake. The costs of non-relationship between Washington and Tehran are already highlighted by the almost daily attacks by the Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq on U.S. military assets in those countries. The U.S. retaliates in what it claims to be “self-defense strikes” against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the absence of a meaningful diplomatic track and de-escalation mechanisms, these exchanges could easily spiral out of control and lead to a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.

In such a scenario the U.S. would have little regional support as the Arab and Islamic world is focused on ending Israel’s war in Palestine, not joining a new one against Iran. It is highly meaningful that it was the war in Gaza that provided the context for the first visit of Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to Saudi Arabia after years of hostility — for a joint meeting of the League of Arab States and Organization Islamic Conference. A handshake between Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in Riyadh would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

The U.S. should encourage these regional reconnections and establish its own direct dialogue with Iran. The alternative — dividing the region neatly into the moderates (such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Jordan) and pariahs (Iran and its allies and proxies) — has been tried and failed abysmally. The consequences of this failure are being tragically played out in Gaza.

Establishing direct talks with Iran will not solve all of the region’s problems. It may also carry domestic political risks for Biden in the pre-election year. But doubling down on the strategy of exclusion of Iran from any solution in Gaza and future security configuration in the Middle East is guaranteed to perpetuate the cycles of violence in the region.

lev radin and Alexandros Michailidis via shutterstock.com

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