Shelve the Negativity and Work With Iran


At a recent Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked his colleagues to shut their mouths about the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

Olmert's gag order followed two weeks of unhelpful, knee-jerk reaction by some Israeli politicians caught off guard by the reports' conclusions, which found that Iran suspended its covert nuclear-weapons program in 2003, and that it acts as an essentially rational player pursuing traditional national interests of "security, prestige and regional goals."

The release of the NIE report should prompt more than silence from Jerusalem, however. It should prompt a rethinking of Israel's — and the pro-Israel community in America's — approach toward Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vile statements about the Holocaust and Israel should not be ignored or taken lightly. But the pre-NIE strategy of using coercive diplomacy and military threats was deeply flawed, dangerous and failed to deliver concrete results. It has not stopped Tehran's pursuit of uranium enrichment, enhanced regional security or tempered Ahmadinejad's rhetoric.

Now it's time for Israel and its friends to take the initiative and promote direct, unconditional and comprehensive U.S.-led engagement with Iran.

Three considerations drive this approach: practical, political and strategic.

On the practical level, the double-pronged tactic of international sanctions and the threat of military action has become even less viable.

The military option, never popular outside neoconservative circles and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's office, now seems even more remote. Aside from the international outcry an attack would bring, the huge potential downside of an attack on Iran — further destabilization of the entire region, a ratcheting up of anti-U.S. hostility, increased violence in Iraq and possibly on Israel's doorstep — remains unchanged.

The report has also made sanctions, more difficult to sustain. The debate now is where it always should have been: how to change Iran's behavior, not how to change its regime.

Support for engaging with Iran is growing. Leading Democratic U.S. presidential contenders have embraced the diplomatic option. Even the new Republican front-runner, Mike Huckabee, suggested in a recent article in Foreign Affairs that diplomacy should be "put on the table," bemoaning 30 years without "talking" to Iran.

Bellicose rhetoric by the United States strengthens Ahmadinejad and Iran's hard-liners. Reformers and more pragmatic opponents in Iran have called on America to replace its saber-rattling with engagement.

The most compelling reason for changing the approach to Iran is that the current strategy simply does not work.

While isolation has not advanced U.S. or Israeli interests, engagement could yield the desired security guarantees for Israel and the United States.

America's consistent exclusion of Iran has not been beneficial. Middle East peace conferences in Madrid in 1991 and at Annapolis, Md., last month both intentionally excluded the Islamic Republic. Yet, when the peace process is framed as an exercise in isolating Iran, its sponsors should expect Iran to try to play the spoiler.

Rather than resigning ourselves to the unnecessary conclusion that Israel's fate is one of perpetual conflict, we ought to be more ambitious in our diplomatic reach.

The pro-Israel community should be encouraging comprehensive U.S.-led engagement with Iran — not the opposite — and should help shape that dialogue — not lag behind it.

Daniel Levy was an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office under Ehud Barak and a negotiator on the Oslo accords.



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