Last week, at the annual Munich Security Conference, Vice President Joe Biden hinted at a possible scenario of direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but only if Tehran showed that it would be serious about such talks. Amid the heightening political tensions, provocative military exercises and the unknown risk of Israel choosing to perform a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Biden’s remarks offer a hope that diplomacy is still alive and well on the issue.
Still, the whole affair resembles a grade school romance, of pulled hair, the Nile and drama, as both sides agonize over what the other is thinking and who should make the first move. In a perfectly rational world, Iran and the United States could form a regional alliance, on par with its alliance with Turkey in value and stability.
Biden did not elaborate on what being "serious" means for Iran, but it is not difficult to guess: stopping uranium enrichment, opening up nuclear facilities to inspection and severely curtailing activities related to the support of Hezbollah, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, and potentially, Shia factions in Iraq. Being "serious," however, also means ending the sanctions on Iran and restoring its ability to participate in the global financial system. On matters of democratic reforms, regime change or the Iranian attitude to Israel, these are topics for another day.
Being one of two nation-states in MENA (the other being Egypt), Iran is much more politically stable and predictable than any other country in the region by virtue of the fact that it isn’t a post-colonial political project with its seeds of destruction locked in the border design. This reality is buttressed through the regime, which despite sanctions, protests, and isolation, continues to be viable and maintain some minimum standard of electoral cycling and a degree of public legitimacy. As the Arab Spring has produced regimes that are more hostile to the West than the dictatorships they replaced, Iran offers an opportunity to be one of few potential regional allies, and its relative stability is the first argument in favour of direct engagement.
Second, Iranian foreign policy is defensive and pragmatic, focusing on asymmetric responses to threats and restraining the potential for conventional engagements. It is done through a creative mix of diplomacy and the support of sub-state groups to get around the constraints of the imposed sanctions. Alternative methods of political and economic conduct, such as energy projects with India, Pakistan, and China, as well as pegging the rial to the USD or Yuan could very well solve Tehran’s currency devaluation problems. Such resourcefulness and range of contacts represents a potential conduit for American foreign policy, as its interests remain but its means are curtailed by a financial and political straitjacket.
On the front of common interests, Washington and Tehran align in a regional and global plan. First, nobody has any interests to close the Hormuz strait, despite the posturing to do so – the consequences to the global economy from a sharp rise in the oil price would spike inflation and deepen the recession in an already economically-ailed West. Second, counter-terrorism is of common interest, because a repeat of 9/11, the prospect of a dirty bomb exploding in a major city, or a terrorist organization overtaking an entire state, as is the case with Mali, do not represent outcomes that either country wants to deal with. Finally, encouraging political stability, even at the price of democracy, is to counteract the strategic threat that states on the brink of failure, like Syria and Iraq, represent. Such an alliance would also be able to address any potential extra-regional problems when the day of reckoning for the Gulf monarchies comes knocking.
Finally, from a rational point of view, the alliance with Israel might carry more costs than benefits, as Tel Aviv’s international isolation deepens and a foreign policy carried out solely by air strikes begins to not only threaten Israel, but also the America’s legitimacy as a Mideast actor. In such a scenario, changing the tone with Tehran offers not only a moderating effect on Israel, but can encourage a significant lessening of regional tensions.
Despite the fiery rhetoric of the war drums, which fills the airwaves on a daily basis, the best option remains reversing the discourse away from the dynamics of the grade school crush and beginning to look at the issue "seriously" on both sides.
The world can only tolerate the game of nuclear chicken with Iran for so long – it’s high time it ended peacefully.