In 1972, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon visited Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, re-establishing Sino-American relationships during, as Nixon called it, “the week that changed the world.”
Nov. 20, 1977, 36 years ago, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat flew to Israel to deliver a speech at the Knesset, a visit that eventually led to the first peace treaty signed between the state of Israel and an Arab state.
I was in Saudi Arabia at the time of Sadat’s Jerusalem visit. Everyone was so surprised by it (the logistics had been arranged in under a week) that no one knew what to think. I even had some Saudi officials ask me(!) what I thought about it. I was clueless, but it was clear that peace paradigms had shifted.
It’s time now to shift more Middle East paradigms.
I had dinner in Boston this week with a bunch of Middle East experts — Americans, Lebanese, Syrians, Israelis, Iranians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, secularists — all thoughtful and wicked smart, all who fear a further unraveling of the Middle East if peace talks with Iran fail, all of whom live within diverse, pluralistic communities that tomorrow could be someone’s next target of ignorance, prejudice or war.
Syria was the reason we were there, but there was no avoiding Iran. A friend, a Washington political reporter, responding to a question about why Obama was being passive in Syria, answered: “Because the White House considers Syria a subset of their relationship issues with Iran and Russia.” Relationship issues? We all have relationship issues.
But relationship issues with Iran and Russia need more than a marriage counselor.
They need a vision — divine intervention of some sort.
We in the Seacoast have lately been preoccupied by Red Sox successes, UNH hockey, Ted Cruz, congressional failures, Obamacare malfunctions, debt ceilings and worry about the coming of winter (will I be able to fix my barn roof before snow falls?), while in the Middle East different stories unfold.
While Syria functions, barely, as a state, with its territory increasingly carved into fiefdoms each controlled by either government forces or by warlords, militia leaders and al-Qaeda-allied jihadists, a consortium of international experts is successfully dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program and stockpiles.
And as the P5+1 (U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) negotiates with Iran over its nuclear program, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians falter as Israel is unrelenting in its appropriation of Palestinian territory for colony expansion.
Given current circumstances, I want to expand on recent comments I wrote (Sept. 8) about a strategic opening to Iran.
Detente with Iran could remove Tehran’s support from the criminal regime in Damascus and end the weapons flow to Hezbollah.
Diminished Iranian support for Syria would force Russia to decide whether it wants to be identified as Damascus’ only supporter and arms supplier. I think “Nyet.” Bush’s Iraq war allowed Iran to gain hegemonic power over the eastern Shi’a Crescent. We can’t take that back, as much as Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states might like, but maybe it can work for us: As America withdraws from Afghanistan it’ll be in Iran’s interest to settle conflicts between Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and the various Taliban elements in order to keep its border quiet.
Dinner moved toward desert and coffee as a guest despaired: “Negotiating with Iran’s the easy part. Imagine trying to get an Iranian deal through Congress.”
He’s right. Trying to get Congress to support returning SWIFT banking codes to Tehran will be harder than getting access for international inspectors to Iranian centrifuges.
Even if the talks in Geneva come up with a deal that everyone can live with, the possibly that some congressmen, perhaps a coalition of hard-line Israel supporters allied with congressmen unwilling to support any initiative that might cast credit upon President Obama, could look for ways to sink any peace initiative.
Even today, as the P5+1 are negotiating, those congressmen want to toughen Iranian sanctions — to move today’s goalposts further away, frustrating a deal.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif states, I believe correctly, that as a signatory to the U.N.’s Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has a right to uranium enrichment. Iran says it rejects nuclear arms and says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical applications.
While Israel’s anxieties must be considered, its extreme claims on the Iranian threat must be scrutinized. In 1995 Netanyahu claimed, “Within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb, without having to import either the technology or the material. (The nuclear threat) must be uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.” Today, it’s 2013, there’s no bomb, the United States is heading an international front to negotiate a settlement with Iran, the paradigm is shifting and it’s time for everyone to get on board.
Until evidence is produced to the contrary — evidence, not speculation — that Iran intends to build WMDs, I think there is a basis for a negotiated settlement on the basis of facts as they exist today.
America, either singly or as part of P5+1, will build in the safeguards against any potential Iranian duplicity, and Iran knows that any betrayal of agreement will lead to much harsher sanctions than before.
Further, neither America nor Israel has yet also to give a credible scenario why Iran (if it was ever to get the bomb) would ever attack Israel with nuclear weapons. The consequences are clear: An attack would immediately lead to its own annihilation by both Israel and the United States. Iran, in spite of its rhetoric, has never been other than a rational actor where its national interests are concerned.
Today, the only assurance to peace and security — for Iran, for Israel, for Syria, for the neighborhood —is finding a path to mutually advantageous economic, political and cultural relationships.
Today, while I believe that a negotiated settlement is possible, getting Congress and the Israelis to sign on is problematic and needs either divine intervention or inspired action.
Inspired action: Challenge the paradigm.
Please, Barack Obama, channel Nixon-to-China, Sadat-to-Israel.
It will be dangerous. There are many parties who would be interested in sabotaging the mission, both inside and outside Iran. Security challenges would be immense.
It comes with benefits. Unequalled hospitality. Guided tours of Qum, Isfahan and Shiraz. Visiting gardens that stir memories of Rumi and Hafiz, caviar, pistachios, pine nuts — even eating “tahdig,” the many ways in which Iranians make rice, will make the trip memorable.
The stakes are high. For children in Damascus’ suburbs, for Israel’s survival, for the emergence of an independent state of Palestine, for stability from the Red Sea to the Straits of Malacca, for global security, the existing paradigm must be discarded.
An act of such courage, hospitality and peace by our Nobel Peace laureate can only be made by a nation supremely confident of its power and authority. By going over Congress’s head, by bypassing lobbies, power brokers and special interests, by appealing to the goodness and fairness of the American people to support such an action, Obama can do this.
We can again be the light of the world. We can be the city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.