29 Dec 2007

Re: The Costs of Containing Iran

In the January/February piece The Costs of Containing Iran, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh make the case that the Bush administration’s strategy in the Persian Gulf is ill-founded, based on a faulty understanding of present circumstances and recent history. To this end, they are largely convincing, however one aspect of their critique is flawed.

Takeyh and Nasr argue that Washington’s strategy hinges on a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to shift Arab attention from the Levant towards Tehran, and that this expectation is flawed in two critical ways. Firstly (and rightly), they say, no such breakthrough is in sight. Secondly, “Even if the peace process can be successfully relaunched, the notion that Arabs see the rise of Iran as a bigger problem than the decades-old [emphasis added] Arab-Israeli conflict is misplaced.” They support this statement by pointing to the way in which President Ahmadinejad has successfully used anti-Israeli rhetoric to gain favor amongst Arabs.

For the most part, Takeyh and Nasr are right—the Arab-Israeli conflict dominates the media, as well as the hearts and minds of most Arabs, while Tehran is mostly discussed by top-level Arab bureaucrats. But in characterizing the Arab-Israeli conflict as “decades-old,” the authors insinuate that somehow its historical roots run deeper than the conflict in the Gulf. This is patently absurd. The Arab-Persian conflict is older even than the Shia-Sunni split (and is, in fact, closely related to it), and continues to play an influential role in regional politics.

Iran’s hostility towards Israel, beginning with the Shah in the late 70s [?] and continuing today in the voice of Ahmadinejad, illustrates the Iranian understanding of the situation; if Tehran wants to realize it’s regional ambitions, it will need Arab support, and Israel is a convenient unifying enemy.

The Bush administration’s policy, however else it is flawed, is reasonable in its assumption that neutralizing the Arab-Israeli conflict will make space for Arab states to focus on containing Tehran’s political and territorial ambitions.