One of the best-known sayings bandied about in this region is that "Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East." This has been the official position of successive Israeli governments. What is less known is that after a comprehensive, regional peace agreement is reached, Israel will support a regional decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Recently, President Shimon Peres personally confirmed to me that this was the policy he had presented to the world when he served as prime minister. He added that as far as he knows, this policy remains in effect to this day.
Let us assume that tomorrow Iran informs its American interlocutors that it will cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, abide by all United Nations resolutions relating to nuclear weapons, and recognize Israel - but on two conditions: first, that Iran will receive assurances from the international community that it will immediately act to implement UN resolutions calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in territories conquered in 1967, and a commitment to expedite the end of Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights; secondly, that Israel be forced to open its reactor in Dimona to IAEA inspectors, to ensure that the country has developed nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes rather than for producing dozens of atomic bombs, which foreign press reports say do, in fact, exist.
Is this a scenario for the distant future? Not necessarily. During a meeting among the foreign ministers of Muslim states that took place in Tehran in May 2003, Iran - then led by president Mohammad Khatami - voted in favor of the Arab League peace initiative introduced in March 2002. According to the initiative, which has since become part of the road map as well as UN Security Council Resolution 1515, the Arab League would offer Israel full, normalized relations in exchange for a total withdrawal from the territories.
Flynt Leverett, the senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during president George W. Bush's first term in office, claims that on at least two occasions, Washington ignored conciliatory gestures from Tehran. In a lecture he gave in June 2006 before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Leverett recalled that in the spring of 2003 - a short time after the U.S. invasion of Iraq - the Swiss ambassador to Tehran relayed to the White House an Iranian offer which included three elements: an agreement to launch negotiations with the U.S. administration over the nuclear issue, to adopt the Arab League initiative, and to cease support of Palestinian terrorist organizations based outside of the territories. The Bush administration ignored the message.
According to an article written by Leverett at the time, this was not the first time that an Iranian offer was met with a cold shoulder. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, he noted, Iran offered the Bush administration assistance in stopping the terrorism sowed by Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Bush preferred to adopt the "Axis of Evil" strategy. In a New York Times op-ed piece which he co-authored with his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, Leverett warned U.S. President Barack Obama not to repeat the same mistakes as his predecessor vis-a-vis Iran.
Today Leverett, a research fellow who specializes in Iran at The New America Foundation, shares the view of many experts, who are doubtful of the chances that Russia and China will support more stringent sanctions against Iran. Given the fact that the "traditional" sanctions policy has not produced any tangible results, they warn that Obama will be faced with two unsavory options: coming to terms with an uninspected Iranian nuclear program that will demonstrate the powerlessness of the international community; or another war in the Middle East.
Leverett proposes a different approach: replacing the language of sanctions against Iran with an attempt to build new relations with it, based on shared interests. In the op-ed piece, he noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently in New York that cooperation with the United States on the nuclear issue is possible only within the context of a wider strategic understanding in the diplomatic, security-related and economic realms.
Is this a case of naivete? Perhaps. It is certainly possible that the ayatollah regime seeks to mislead the Americans in order to buy more time to complete its nuclear program. But what will we do if the Iranians surprise Obama with an offer to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons and to help establish peace throughout the entire region? It is so convenient for us to remain tied to the policy of ambiguity on both issues. Netanyahu needs to prepare himself for the possibility that Iran will redeem its concessions vis-a-vis its nuclear program with Israeli concessions over the territories.
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