In September 2002, then former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a US congressional committee “There is absolutely no question whatsoever” that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was developing nuclear weapons at “portable manufacturing sites of mass death.” Once Hussein had nuclear weapons, Netanyahu warned,”the terror network will have nuclear weapons,” placing “the security of the entire world at risk.” Fast forward to this week, and Netanyahu was back, this time as prime minister, to make virtually identical claims about Iran. Yet not only has the US intelligence community disagreed with Netanyahu’s assessment of Iranian nuclear intentions, so does Israel’s, according to leaked documents. Indeed more than 200 retired security officers have publicly criticised Netanyahu as a danger to Israel’s security. Sadly, Netanyahu’s presentation reinforces caricatures regularly advanced by American and Gulf Arab pundits- caricatures of Iran as aspiring Middle East hegemon, bent on overthrowing an otherwise stable regional order. It’s a misguided perspective that is actually hurting the United States. In Netanyahu’s view, America should only improve relations with an Iran that stops it’s regional “aggression,” it’s support for “terrorism,” and it’s “threat(s) to annihilate Israel.” In other words, America should not improve relations with an Iran whose regional influence is rising. In reality, Iran’s rise is not only normal, it is actually essential to a more stable region. As nuclear talks with Tehran enter a decisive phase, rapprochement with a genuinely independent Iran- not a nominally independent Iran whose strategic orientation is subordinated to US prefrences- is vital to halting the decline of America’s strategic position. Washington has long worked to consolidate a highly militarised, pro-American Middle Eastern order. Yet these efforts- pursued across Democratic and Republican administrations and intensified after 9/11- have clearly failed. As a result, the Middle East today is less stable, more riven with sectarian and ethnic conflict, and more violent than at any point in its modern history.
Under any political system, Iran would be a significant regional actor, due to its geostrategic location, hydrocarbon resources and large, educated population. But the Islamic Republic- which Iranians built themselves as a participatory Islamist system representing their interest, not those of rulers beholden to foreign powers- has a legitimacy America must accept to foster a truly stable Middle East. Iran has gained influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen by backing political structures that, in Tehran’s judgement, will produce government’s committed to foreign policy independence. Washington needs cooperation with just such an Iran against common foes like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and to balance counter productive policies of America’s regional allies. A myth prevails that America’s bond with Israel flows from “shared democratic values” and response to the Holocaust. In fact, Washington only started providing Israel with significant military assistance and diplomatic immunity after the 1967 war, when Israel seized pivotal territory from Egypt and Syria, two Soviet allies opposed to American regional dominance. For the remainder of and after the Cold War, US officials calculated that ensuring Israel’s military superiority over its neighbours helped America pursue hegemony over the Middle East. The reality is that Israel’s concern about Iranian nuclearization is not that Tehran will use (at the moment non existent) nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed Israel. Instead, as then Defence Minister Ehud Barak explained in 2012, it is that a nuclear Iran would “restrict our range of operations.” But this is precisely what a truly stable balance of power requires. America needs constructive relations with all major regional states, including Iran, so that they constrain one another’s reckless impulses.