Can the gradual drumbeat toward war against Iran be averted? As the United States continues the biggest naval build-up in the Gulf since the Iraq war, have all the diplomatic options been fully explored? Is a military strike the best option for Israel? Is it possible to mitigate Iran's nuclear threat by offering a deal that addresses the security concerns of all the parties engaged in this conflict?
The current international crisis presents new opportunities. The political landscape in Iran is changing. There are increasing signs that President Ahmadinejad may have suffered a near-fatal blow. In an unprecedented criticism of his bellicose foreign policy rhetoric and his poor record on promised reforms at home, 150 members of the parliament signed a letter blaming him for raging inflation, soaring food prices, high unemployment, and failure to deliver a budget on time
PRAGMATISTS in Iran claim that Ahmadinejad's provocative rhetoric, in which he declared "Iran will not suspend uranium enrichment even for one day" runs the risk of torpedoing any chance of better relations with the West. In the Iranian media he has been criticized for using rhetoric to deflect from his domestic problems. There is mounting speculation that his provocative style could lead to impeachment and removal from office.
Even if this does not happen, the changing mood inside the country and the external pressures from the UN Security Council may have encouraged those in charge of foreign policy to challenge Ahmadinejad. Under Iran's complex constitutional setup, Ahmadinejad is only responsible for domestic policy, not for Iran's external relations. Foreign policy is made by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, under the guidance of the National Security Council.
The president's declining position coincides with a crushing defeat in December's local elections, when his allies won only a fifth of the seats for the Teheran City Council. The results suggest a move away from dogmatic conservatism and a growth of support for his presidential rival, Mohammed Baqer Qualibuf, the current mayor of Teheran, who is known for more pragmatic policies.
A MILITARY strike, either from the US, or from Israel, would derail these developments and be welcomed by regime hard-liners. During a recent visit to Teheran I spoke to both hard-liners and moderates. Many felt that the consequences of outside intervention would lead the Revolutionary Guard to declare a state of emergency, marginalizing moderate influence for the next decade. This would escalate Iran's thrust to become a nuclear weapon state. A surge of nationalistic fever could secure Ahmadinejad's position.
THE REACTION of Israel and of the world Jewish community toward the president's anti-Semitism is legitimate. It is also shared by people in Iran. Iran does not have the history of anti-Semitism prevalent over centuries in Europe. With the exception of a few right-wing newspapers, Iranian media either ignored or courageously condemned the now-notorious conference organized by Ahmadinejad called "A World without Zionism." The consequences of the conference further isolated Iran and its president in world public opinion.
Many in the international community are concerned that time is running out for diplomatic options. It is thought that the Iranians are ready to operate more than 300 centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plant within weeks, as Iran's president is expected to announce the expansion of the uranium enrichment program. This is calculated to raise tensions, as well as divert Iranians' attention from domestic concerns.
Once on this trajectory, a peaceful solution becomes harder to find. But behind the confident Iranian declarations, Prof. Paul Rogers, a British specialist on Iran's nuclear policies, claims that "there are serious signs to suggest that Iran's nuclear program is in severe difficulty as they have continued problems with contamination and laser enrichment." If this is correct, there would still be a window for further dialogue.
A little-known fact is that in 2003 the Iranian government, under Mohammad Khatami, discussed a secret Grand Bargain with US interlocutors at the time of the fall of Saddam Hussein. In return for US security guarantees of non-interference in the regime, the end of sanctions and the opening of the possibility of joining the World Trade Organization, Iran offered support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine in which it said it would accept the Arab League plan for ending the conflict. It also offered to give up supporting terrorist groups.
WHAT THEN is the scope, four years later, to revitalize such an initiative? Could the changing mood in Teheran offer real opportunities for exploring such an agenda?
The US continues its policy of isolating Iran and is supporting a Sunni-led alliance including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, a Fatah-led Palestine and also Israel. But the Saudi government's goals are not in direct alignment with the US and it is pursuing a different role in the region.
Recent talks in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah have agreed on a unity government which, as I read it, recognizes previous peace accords with Israel. Significantly, King Abdullah, who is trusted by both sides, is playing an important mediation role. Saudi Arabia has also opened up contacts with Iran to ease tensions in Iraq and Lebanon.
This inclusive model needs to be enlarged. Like it or not, all the parties in this conflict need to be engaged and mutual security agendas addressed. A regional conference that includes all the parties involved in the conflict is needed. This would need to include Syria and Iran, as well as the Quartet and both Hamas and Fatah on the Palestinian side.
Out of this could emerge a long-term semi-permanent roundtable where experts on each side could address contentious issues. The establishment of such a mechanism would require complex diplomatic approaches as no formal precedents already exist as models. Careful multiple conversations are needed to engage with the security anxieties of all the different players in this conflict without preconditions.
A model of divide and rule will not bring security for Israel; only accommodation with her neighbors will achieve this. The plan endorsed at the Arab League in 2002 offered Israel normal diplomatic relations with the 22 members of the Arab League once Israel withdrew to the 1967 armistice lines. This could be the basis for the exploration of an end of conflict, not just with Israel's Palestinian neighbors but within the wider region.
Could the changing mood in Teheran open up more possibilities to pursue this agenda?
The writer is Human Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group and a specialist in conflict resolution. She also co-authored Making Terrorism History.