One probably shouldn't hold one's breath, but the dawn of the Obama administration offers an opportunity to revisit the question whether confrontation or dialogue is most likely to produce an understanding with Iran that would alleviate Western, Israeli and Arab fears. Engaging Iran in a constructive dialogue would help reduce tension and the potential for violence in the Middle East. Obama has said he intends to engage Iran more actively.
The Israeli offensive in Gaza highlights the threat to stability in the Middle East that confrontation with Iran poses. If Hamas rockets were the immediate driver of the Israeli offensive, tacit support by conservative Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, effectively gave it at least initial diplomatic cover and support. Underlying Israeli and conservative pro-Western Arab calculations, is a deep-seated fear of Iranian ambitions in the region that through Hamas cuts across the Sunni-Shiite divide.
Reading between the lines of statements by militant forces in the Middle East often is an exercise comparable with Kreminology in the days of the Soviet Union or second guessing succession in Saud Arabia. Messages designed to open the door to dialogue, settlement of differences and even rapprochement or at least intended to test the waters, are usually buried in a torrent of militant phraseology, war-mongering rhetoric and blood-stalling verbage and often contained in what a radical state or group does or does not do. Iran is no exception.
Iranian leaders from across the country's political spectrum have been signaling a desire to engage in a dialogue with the United States that could define the Islamic republic's role in the region provided that takes into account Iran's size, resources and regional clout. Some fear that engaging Iran on those terms could shift the balance of power in the Gulf. "US-Iranian detente would sacrifice GCC interests. There is a fear that … a grand bargain would marginalize the GCC states," Mahmoud Monshipouri, a political scientist at San Francisco State University, said in a recent speech in Abu Dhabi. He said such a détente would harm Dubai, which has benefitted considerably from the embargo on Iran. UAE exports and re-exports to Iran amounted to $6.57 billion in 2007, according to figures from the UAE Federal Customs Authority. However, a lifting of the embargo may have less of an impact on Dubai than meets the eye. The Washington Post, quoting reports by the US Justice Department and the Institute for Science and International Security, reports that Iran has shifted the axis of its smuggling of components for its nuclear program from Dubai to Malaysia.
Some US intelligence officials believe that Iran is already capable of building one nuclear bomb every eight months and that Obama will have no choice but to engage Iran and embed it in a broader regional security arrangement. The New York Times reports that President Bush last year rejected an Israeli request for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted to drop on Iran’s main nuclear complex and had also refused Israel permission fly over Iraq to reach the facility. Instead, Bush, according to the Times quoting US and non-US officials, advised Israel that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort. Some US intelligence officials however argue that the covert operation, if the past is any indication, will at best delay but not derail the Iranian nuclear program.
Iran most recently signaled its interest in playing a constructive role and engaging in dialogue through its response to the Gaza crisis – a combination of theatrics and some diplomacy. Iran has ruled out military support for Hamas, witness the refusal of Hizbollah to attempt to alleviate Hamas, by opening a second front against Israel on its northern border. Beyond not wanting to jeopardize Hizbollah's ability to perform well in Lebanese elections scheduled for later this year, Iran believes that Israel has created a situation that will cost it dearly, if not in military terms, certainly in political and diplomatic ones. Reason for Mohammed Ali Jafari, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) to say this weekend: "Gazan resistance does not need other countries' military help."
No doubt, an advertisement last week offering a reward of $1 million to anyone who would assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for betraying the Palestinians placed by the Basij, a volunteer-based paramilitary force subordinate to the revolutionary guards, hardly points to a desire for dialogue. It does however fit into the category of tasteless, counterproductive and provocative theatrics. It is unlikely that Iran is about to dispatch a team of assassins. More probable is that Iran would like to stir the pot in Egypt, witness the call by Iran's Lebanese ally, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, on Egyptians to protest their government's refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. Hizbollah does "not like to target Israeli civilians during election years – and Lebanon has parliamentary elections coming up in April. Hezbollah even kept their rocket attacks down for 1998’s local elections... Extrapolating, this trend indicates how highly Hezbollah values its legal and political standing in Lebanon and its recognition that this standing is damaged when it is held responsible for provoking Israeli strikes," says Aaron Mannes, who works on models of terrorist group behavior at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics on the TheTerrorWonk blog.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has a particular pension for setting himself up as the boogeyman, denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's demise. Yet, his predictions that Israel with be destroyed or simply wither away from the pages of history reflect a belief that Israel is digging it own grave and will self-destruct as a result of its own contradictions and policies. Critics of Israel in the west may too argue as they watch the carnage in Gaza continue that Israel's is its own worst enemy. Moreover, Iran's real targets are the conservative Arab governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, Israel is a tool towards that goal.
Iran sees political mileage in the mass demonstrations across the Arab world not only denouncing Israel but also Arab government failure to bring an end to the crisis. That political capital is all the more important in a period of transition in which it has yet to emerge whether US President-elect Barack Obama will break with the Bush administration's policy of seeking to force Iran to make concessions before engaging in constructive dialogue.
Iran limiting itself to theatrics and rhetoric in Gaza contains another message: compare Iran's response to Gaza to its response to issues about which it is really concerned: Iraq and Afghanistan where Iran's hand in the resistance against the presence of US troops is clearly visible.
Nonetheless, theatrics and rhetoric contain pitfalls. Iranian leaders encouraged Iranians to pour into the streets to protest the Israeli offensive and to volunteer to fight in Gaza. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared that "true believers" were "duty-bound to defend" the Palestinians promised anyone who died for the cause of Gaza that he would be a martyr. Demonstrators took things in their own hands and attacked foreign embassies, including those of Britain and Jordan. They had to be cautioned to maintain public order.
Some 200 volunteers of the 70,000 who reportedly signed up to fight in Gaza held an angry sit in at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, demanding that they be sent to the strip. Ahmadinejad's brother, Dawoud Ahmadinejad, was sent to the airport to advise them that they would not be travelling to Gaza any time soon while IRGC commander Jafari asked them to end the demonstration and called for a "mental and political jihad" against the enemy.