Zvi Bar'el / No need to use Iran as excuse for 'regional peace'
Whether Mideast peace materializes or not, it's hard to believe U.S. will halt thaw in its ties with Iran.
There is no end to the list of new words and phrases invented for the diplomatic dictionary. The latest gimmick is called "regional peace." It is based on the following formula: Israel and the Arab states have a common enemy called Iran. In order to neutralize the Iranian threat, Israel will ultimately have to adopt the Arab peace initiative, and then something wondrous will happen - a bloc of states will rally and face down the Iranian nuclear threat.
"For Israel to get the strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand," Hillary Clinton explained the magic formula. This formula is based on a supposedly historic volte-face, whereby, for the first time ever, a joint Israeli-Arab strategic interest exists, one more impressive than economic cooperation and more attractive than plain old normalization. Here we have a solid, firm footing for peace.
Like all magic, one needs to figure out the trick behind it. Arab states and Israel do not have to forge peace to demonstrate a united, anti-Iranian front. Such a front will crystallize in any event, even without an agreement, and the Arab states will not start loving Iran simply because they do not have peaceful relations with Israel.
But let's assume that Clinton is right and regional peace is mainly dependent on Israel's full adoption of the "two-states-for-two-peoples" principle, without attendant conditions. Let's also assume that the Netanyahu government agrees to this formula, because it is already showing signs it understands there is a difference between election campaigns and forming policy. This principle requires withdrawals, dismantling settlements, demarcating a border, sharing water resources, agreeing on how to administer the holy places, resolving the future status of Jerusalem, and, in short, solving all the core issues no Iranian threat is strong enough to neutralize.
Let's also assume that Israel and the Palestinians reach such an agreement. Even this does not ensure that the region will free itself from Iran's grip. Iraq, for example, is already under Iran's political and economic orbit. It is Tehran's second most important trading partner. It also provides Iran with a considerable amount of its electricity. An Iraqi boycott of Iran is unrealistic. And despite the conflict over three islands in the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates is a critical trading partner of Tehran, as is Qatar. Iran pours money into Algeria, Sudan and Syria. Even if these three countries join the "regional peace" program, they will not cut off their ties with Iran.
Iran is no orphan in the wider region, either. Its ties with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are based on rock-solid economic and strategic interests. Afghanistan, the apple of U.S. President Barack Obama's eye, imports products from Iran. Pakistan is anticipating the construction of the Iranian-Indian oil pipeline. Trade between Iran and India has crossed the $15 billion mark. Iran's trade with Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, reached $1 billion by the end of 2008. Its trade with Egypt is much more limited, and it has nearly no trade relations with Jordan. Even together, the Arab states do not have the economic leverage of Russia and China, two states opposed to sanctions against Iran.
But the "regional peace" as a means to neutralize Iran has a much more serious competitor. The United States needs Iran on its main front in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran shares close ties with the Tajiks, the largest ethnic minority in Afghanistan, who speak a Persian dialect. Iran is also very close to the Uzbeks, the second-largest minority, and it sponsors the Hazarans, the Shi'ite community living in western Afghanistan, next to the border with Iran. These minorities comprised the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban. Ideally, Iran, not Pakistan, should serve as a corridor for supplies delivered by NATO into Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and Iraq are the dowry Iran is offering to the United States. It's hard to fathom that the U.S. will agree to halt the thaw in its ties with Iran, whether regional peace materializes between Israel and the Arab states or not.
The pretext for peace with the Arab world does not abut the Alborz Mountains. Regional peace is vital for Israel to become a normal country not apprehensive about conventional threats; this is the same reason it forged peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Even a goal more modest than forming a regional alliance in the Middle East will be welcomed with open arms. There is no need to brandish Iran as an excuse.