Hillary Mann Leverett was a featured panel speaker at a Capitol Hill conference today, organized by the Middle East Policy Council, on “U.S. Policy Towards Israel and Iran: What are the Linkages?” Other panelists included Martin Indyk, Paul Pillar, and Ian Lustick. Apart from the presentations, there were some good exchanges during the question-and-answer session that followed, particularly between Hillary and Martin Indyk. The Middle East Policy Council will not have a video of the event ready for a few days. In the meantime, we append below the text of Hillary’s remarks.
From Hillary Mann Leverett:
The “conventional wisdom” in Washington has long held that Iran, its Syrian ally, and their so-called proxies, HAMAS and Hezbollah, are the ultimate “spoilers” for Middle East peacemaking efforts. According to the conventional wisdom, Iran’s anti-Israel rhetoric and terrorist attacks by HAMAS and Hizballah have regularly scuttled what would otherwise surely have been successful diplomatic initiatives. Given this conventional wisdom, two opposing strategies of “linkage” are typically put forward. Both start from the same premise, that Iran and its so-called proxies can and must be marginalized—they really only differ in how to achieve that goal.
The first strategy, favored by the Obama Administration, see here, and articulated recently by National Security Adviser James Jones, see here, holds that trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace is the key to Iran and its proxies’ regional marginalization.
–From this perspective, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—or, more accurately, an Israeli-Fatah peace agreement—and the creation of a more prosperous Fatah enclave in the West Bank would undermine popular support for HAMAS, even in Gaza, marginalize HAMAS as an actor in Palestinian politics, and effectively terminate Iranian influence in Palestinian affairs, with significant negative consequences for Iran’s regional standing.
–Likewise, the prospect of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement could be used to wean Syria away from its alliance with Iran, thereby circumscribing Hizballah’s role in Lebanese politics and further reducing Tehran’s regional standing and influence.
–And, of course, progress in the peace process will supposedly make it easier to form that mythical, and I stress mythical, diplomatic constellation, to which several U.S. administrations have aspired—a coalition between Israel and “moderate” Arab states, for the purpose of “containing” Iran.
The second linkage strategy, favored by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, posits that weakening Iran’s strategic position and stripping it of its nuclear capabilities—if necessary, by force—is needed before there can be real progress on Arab-Israeli peace.
Frankly, both sets of linkages are wrong. Let’s start with why the first set of linkages—that is, trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace as a way of marginalizing Iran and its so-called proxies—is wrong.
The key point is this: It is simply not possible today—if it ever were possible at some point in the past—to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a manner that excludes and marginalizes Iran and its regional allies.
–Usama Hamdan, the chief of international relations for HAMAS has said that Israel and the United States have a “Cinderella shoe” approach to Middle Eastern elections—that is, unless the winner fits a certain set of specific parameters, he will not be accepted as a legitimate interlocutor.
–I agree, but I would add that Israel and the United States also have a “Cinderella shoe” approach to the Middle East peace process—only parties that can frontload their concessions need apply.
This is a profoundly dysfunctional approach to diplomacy. That is something Israel’s late Prime Minister Rabin came to understand when he explained why Israel needed to negotiate with the PLO—because you make peace with your enemies, not your friends. Policies that deny this reality are bound to and have failed—both in terms of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and in terms of dealing effectively with Iran. I will elaborate this argument with three specific points:
First, though they are non-state actors, HAMAS and Hizballah have become indispensable political players in their respective national and regional contexts. Simply put, these groups win elections—and they win them for the best possible reasons: because they represent unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances. Under these circumstances, I challenge anyone to describe, in a plausible way, how Israel and the United States can reach sustained peace agreements on either the Palestinian or the Syrian and Lebanese tracks of the peace process without these groups’ buy in.
These groups should have a place in the peace process—because otherwise the process has no meaning, except perhaps as a crass “motion without movement” exercise. Those who continue to depict these groups as nihilistic enterprises with no real political agenda are either not paying attention or are deliberately distorting reality for their own political purposes.
Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to want better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel that meets well-established Syrian “red lines” (for example, full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights). But, as President Assad has made clear to my husband, Flynt Leverett, and me in our meetings with him, see here, and has said publicly, see here—Syria’s relations with Iran, Hizballah, and HAMAS are, at this point, “not on the table”.
Syria’s relationships with these actors have moved from perhaps being, in the past, primarily “tactical” levers for the Syrian leadership to being increasingly strategic assets. As my husband described in his 2005 book, Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire, following the end of the Cold War, Hafiz al-Assad’s preferred strategic option was a peace settlement with Israel that, under appropriate circumstances and with firm parameters for an acceptable deal, could be negotiated bilaterally with U.S. mediation. To that end, the elder Assad seemed prepared to modify significant aspects of Syria’s relationships with Iran, Hizballah, and Palestinian militant groups, as part of the “price” for an acceptable peace deal with Israel and strategic rapprochement with the United States. (Of course, this proposition was never put to the test, as the Syria track effectively collapsed under the Clinton Administration’s mismanagement just two months before Hafiz al-Assad’s death in 2000.)
But Bashar al-Assad’s accession to the Syrian presidency in 2000 took place at the beginning of what has proven to be a period of dramatic shifts in the Middle East’s strategic environment. As we have described on our blog, www.TheRaceForIran.com and elsewhere, see here, these shifts include the effective collapse of the traditional Arab-Israeli peace process, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, inconclusive U.S. military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Hizballah and HAMAS as important political actors (as I just discussed), the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in Lebanon, and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as well as subsequent Israeli military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza. It is in this context that Syria’s ties to Hizballah, HAMAS, and Iran have taken on an increasingly strategic character during Bashar al-Assad’s presidential tenure.
–With the removal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon following the Hariri assassination in 2005, Hizballah has become an even more valuable asset for Syria, see here. Hizballah is, among other things, a key ally for Damascus in protecting Syrian interests in Lebanon; it also provides an important—and, at this point, strategic—deterrent against Israel.
–HAMAS’s control of Gaza and credibility among Palestinians more broadly, see here, makes it hard to imagine that Assad would agree to expel Khalid Mishal from Syria as part of a purely bilateral settlement with Israel.
–Iran has also proven its strategic value to Syria in recent years. Iran’s religious legitimization of the Assads’ Alawi sect is important as Syria’s secular regime navigates its way through a religiously charged regional environment. Iranian support was also critical for Syria in fending off heavy pressure from the United States, most of Europe, and moderate Arab states in the wake of the Hariri assassination. In an uncertain strategic environment, Assad will continue to value the “hedge” provided by its close relationship with Iran. Assad is not about to be “weaned” away from Syria’s alliance with Iran.
Third, all that I have discussed under my first two points means that, at this juncture, Iran is bound to be at least an indirect party to any serious Middle East peace process. This is not an obstacle to peace; it is a requirement for progress toward peace. In fact, HAMAS leaders and President Assad told us, and have said publicly, that Iran has backed their efforts to reach a settlement.
–Iran publicly endorsed Syrian participation in talks with Israel that were mediated by Turkey in 2008, see here.
–And, Iran does not try to block HAMAS’s publicly stated openness to a popularly legitimated two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see here.
Now let’s turn to the more hawkish version of linkage favored by Netanyahu—namely, that “rolling” back Iran is a prerequisite for Middle East peace, see here. This vision is at least as delusional as the suggestion by many neoconservatives in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that the “road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad”. It is delusional to think that, if the Islamic Republic of Iran disappeared or were effectively “contained”, there would be no more problems with the Middle East peace process and HAMAS, Hizballah, and Syria would “fall into line” with Israeli and American preferences for organizing the regional order.
–These actors have their own agendas and preferences for regional diplomacy, which they will not give up simply because Israeli or U.S. military aircraft strike nuclear targets inside Iran.
–Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that the increase in Iran’s regional standing and influence in recent years is not a function of its military capabilities.
–To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran has no meaningful capacity to project conventional military power beyond its borders. To the extent that Iran’s regional standing and influence has increased in recent years, it has been because Tehran has picked “winners” for its allies in key regional arenas like Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. U.S. and Israeli pressure on the Islamic Republic is not going to undercut its regional influence; in fact, confrontation with Israel and/or the United States might well enhance Iran’s regional standing.
It is also delusional to think that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership. In reality, the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics. Even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation. Pursuit of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it also will continue to leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall—as these tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, HAMAS and Hizballah.
Additionally, Iran is not going to take Israeli and U.S. political or even military pressure without “pushing back”. And at least some of the ways in which Tehran will seek to “push back” are likely to make it even harder than it is now (that is to say, virtually impossible) to move forward with serious Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
Finally, Netanyahu’s declaration this weekend that only the threat of U.S. military action can have a positive impact on Iran’s nuclear decision-making comments during his visit here last week should be taken very seriously, especially among those of us in the American Jewish community, because he is on an extremely dangerous course. Netanyahu’s push for eventual U.S. military action against Iran could do real damage to Israel and the American Jewish community.
A U.S. attack on Iran would almost certainly result in a much broader confrontation between the United States and Iran—a confrontation that will threaten U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the strategic outcomes of our military adventures in both of those countries, spike the price of oil and hurt an already shaky global economy, and shatter international perceptions that reckless and dangerous U.S. behavior in the strategically vital Middle East was peculiar to George W. Bush’s presidency, see here. These eminently foreseeable consequences would have a devastating impact on America’s standing in one of the world’s most important regions. Israel and the pro-Likud community, if not the broader Jewish community, in the United States may well be blamed when the resulting U.S.-Iranian confrontation does severe damage to American interests, because they have led the charge to war, see here.
So, what is a more constructive way forward? The answer is clear: Real U.S.-Iranian rapprochement to normalize U.S.-Iranian relations, what my husband and I call the “grand bargain”, along with a serious negotiation for Arab-Israeli peace that includes Hamas and Hezbollah. The precedent for this is what Nixon and Kissinger did to realign U.S. relations with China and Egypt in the early 1970s—striking grand bargains with what, at the time, were two rising regional powers. These strategic bargains profoundly changed, for the better, the regional environments in Asia and the Middle East. In particular, the U.S. rapprochement with Egypt and its corollary, the Camp David Accords, have made another generalized Arab-Israeli war nearly impossible.
Today, from a strategic perspective, bringing Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah into a non-conflictual diplomatic process and, eventually, a political settlement would be at least as consequential. For those who buy into the demonization of the Islamic Republic and these groups, it would be useful to remember that only in retrospect is the late Anwar Sadat viewed as a “man of peace”—throughout much of the 1970s, he was widely seen as an anti-Israel activist who had launched the 1973 Yom Kippur war, had admired Adolf Hitler, and had collaborated with Nazi Germany against British forces in Egypt during World War II.
But the critical point is that without U.S.-Iranian rapprochement the United States will not be able to achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East. This would be bad for America’s Arab allies and Israel, which need credible and effective American leadership in the region to maintain a stable balance of power, address serious threats, and ensure their safety and survival.