• Iran
  • October 22, 2009
  • 6 minutes read

It’s good to talk to Iran

It’s good to talk to Iran

Lest we be distracted by Iran’s diplomatic bullying over French involvement in the deal, the outcome of this week’s talks will likely coincide with what impartial analysts have been saying for years: Iran’s acquisition of advanced nuclear technology is inevitable and there is no punitive regime capable of preventing it. But, if brought under the supervision of the IAEA, Iran’s programme could be safely managed, thus making nuclear non-proliferation more than just a distant liberal hope. In coming months, for every step forward, Iran will likely take two back, but the case for sanctions or worse will continue to fade away.

So, as Iran continues to perfect the art of exploiting the complexities of a multilateral international system, it might be worth stepping back and considering what its diplomatic manoeuvrings can tell us about the broader issue of Western difficulties with Islamist political power.

The astute Juan Cole pointed out after the October 1 Geneva talks that Obama managed to get more out of Iran in seven-and-a-half hours than Cheney did in seven-and-a-half years, but it shouldn’t have taken America’s saviour to demonstrate that diplomatic engagement almost always works. Iran’s concessions are part of a general trend of Islamist political actors ready to play quid pro quo when given the opportunity. From Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to Sadr’s al-Mehdi Army, experience shows that Islamist political parties, like most other groups, simply aim to maximise their own power and ensure their own survival. The net effect of the process has been the moderation in the policies and practices of many a feared group.

Take Hezbollah, for example. The much maligned Lebanese group started as a radical guerilla movement as intent on establishing a sharia-governed state as it was on ousting its Israeli occupiers. Today, in its Beirut stronghold of Dahiya, one can find fashion boutiques and pop music stores next to Hezbollah paraphernalia outlets without sensing the psychosis one feels in northern Tehran. Now after the 2006 Israeli fiasco, the survival of Khomeini’s project in Lebanon depends upon the balancing of political interests, participation in elections, and cross-confessional alliance building. On the brink of another civil war, the entire Lebanese society recognized the consequences of stonewalling and unilateralism.

Likewise, stabilisation and engagement in Iraq has resulted in the moderation of the most radical groups. The al-Mehdi Army started as a slum movement energised by messianic zeal. Just five years later it functions as a normal political party campaigning against fellow Shia Islamists through elections and campaigns. Also, few remember that the Dawa party of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was formed over 60 years ago to offer an Islamist alternative to Arab national socialism. Even in Cairo, although it is still technically banned as a party, the Brotherhood’s entrance into the political system and national media infrastructure has turned an 80-year-old social movement into just another part of Egyptian culture.

Glenn Beck and Geert Wilders might say that this is part of a grand Islamist plan to take over the world, but the ratings that keep them in business will soon fall. And the liberals who cry human rights when the topic of Islamist engagement comes up should ask if General Pinochet could be supported in the name of freedom and the butcher Rashid Dostum in the name of stability, then why not Khaled Meshaal in the name of peace?

Political Islam is not going away, but it is significant that its most radical forms have been rejected by mainstream Muslims all over the world. In its place have arisen parties and movements that can be dealt with in standard political terms. It is senseless to ignore this. As can be seen by Israeli crimes in Gaza and Lebanon, military action will not make the problem go away. We learn from Egypt that systematic repression strengthens resolve and fosters innovation. And in Iran we have seen isolation lead to the iron fist of hyper-nationalism.

The West desperately needs to fix its warped strategy towards Islamism. Inconsistencies abound. The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, but the EU has long had open diplomatic channels. The Taliban in Afghanistan are invited into the political process, but bombed wherever they are found across the border. The West fights al-Shabab in Mogadishu but supplies arms to one of its former leaders turned president. It props up the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, trained and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, but doesn’t talk to Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Western world should recognise in its diplomatic war of attrition with Iran that while engagement may seem to play to the hand of its Islamist foes in the short term, in the long term it guarantees the de-radicalisation of Islamist politics across the region. Khomeini’s project to export the revolution never took off, and the Brotherhood’s once multi-country clandestine network is no longer recognisable as an international movement. Instead, as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran have learned, the pressures of modern governance require a lot more than printing pamphlets and chanting slogans. It means taking out the trash, keeping the water clean, and abandoning absolutist ideology for pragmatic policy development. Over the last month Iran has gotten what it has been after for years, a small seat at a very big table — a seat it won’t give up even for Jerusalem. By giving Iran, Hamas, and their like a big piece of pie, the West can be sure that it is still owns the bakery.