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The peace process, Iran and the law of unintended consequences

At a luncheon panel on Israel and Iran at the Century Foundation yesterday, I was taken aback by some thoughts shared by Trita Parsi, author of the new and highly regarded Dangerous Alliance -The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States, and Daniel Levy, the former Israeli negotiator who is now Director of the Foundation’s Prospects for Peace Initiative, among other things. Stay with this and you might surprised, too:

Parsi said the rhetoric of Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party during the Oslo years inflamed Israeli-Iranian tensions and helped to usher both countries along the path of confrontation. One of Rabin’s principal explanations and justifications for the peace process, of course, was that peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors, including the Palestinians, would help to protect it from far more dangerous threats on the periphery, notably Iraq and Iran. The idea was that progress towards solving the Palestinian problem would make it easier for relatively moderate Arab and Persian Gulf states to help Israel, because it would give the leaders of those states more political cover to act as a buffer against Iran or Iraq, and either openly or tacetly ally themselves with Israel. Levy, in turn, said Rabin’s rhetoric was mainly a function of domestic politics, a tool used to sell the Oslo process to the Israelis.

I used to make the same argument just about every time I tried to sell the Oslo process to American Jewish audiences or ghostwrote op-eds for dovish American Jewish and Israeli leaders. In 1998, I created an ad for Israel Policy Forum that appeared in the corner of the New York Times op-ed page. There was a photo of a nuclear-tipped missile. The headline read something like “The U.S. and Israel are trying to develop a new anti-ballistic missile system. It’s called peace.” The copy was a reprise of Rabin’s periphery theory, and it was all about the dire threats that Iraq and Iran posed to Israel and the U.S. People told me it was pretty clever.

I still think the argument is sound. But, if I understood Parsi correctly, calling Iran an arch enemy and hammering away at the idea that it was an existential threat to Israel only served to alarm and anger Iran’s ruling elite. It was among the many factors that helped to encourage Iranian weapons development. Ouch, I thought. Did I, a very very tiny cog in the pro-peace machine, do that?

In the Q&A, I remarked that they had given a frightening illustration of the law of unintended consequences. I mentioned another: when it was time for Rabin to sell the Oslo process in the U.S., one of his first moves was to try to get AIPAC off his back. So he gave them the Iran portfolio, which they eagerly embraced, to put it mildly. They were actively involved in drafting and pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and, in a variety of ways, have helped to escalate the tensions that exist today. Mearsheimer and Walt were wrong about the role of AIPAC in the Iraq War, Parsi told me before lunch, but, by and large, they were right about AIPAC and America’s Iran policies. Had there been no Oslo process, perhaps AIPAC would not have poured as much energy into their Iran-related shenanigans.

My question to the panelists was related to another, possible producer of unintended consequences: America’s own “periphery theory,” as articulated by the Baker-Hamilton Commission and many other reasonable people. The Baker-Hamilton gang -like Dan Fleshler- has asserted that getting more engaged in pushing for peace between Israelis and Palestinians will help America deal with Iran and the mess in Iraq. It would do so by making it easier to establish a coalition of moderate Sunni states. But would an energized peace process also ratchet up tensions with Iran and somehow add fuel to the smoldering fire? (My actual question was less articulate).

Neither answered the question –one of many that were posed to them– directly. But Daniel did say that, of course, certain players had a vested interest in disrupting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and he included Iran on the list.

So I was left to my own devices, which are not adequate to this task. I will make a shocking confession that will distinguish me from just about every other pontificater on the Middle East in the blogosphere: I don’t know enough about Iran to predict the consequences of any action, any diplomatic proposals, anything.

No one who spoke yesterday implied that the U.S. should hesitate to encourage the enduring peace settlement that Israelis and Palestinians clearly and desparately need. Of course it should. Parsi and Levy clearly endorse that as ardently as I do. But they remind us that when we make even a small step in a certain direction in the Middle East, we are playing with forces that could have unexpected effects, with objects that may well collide with each other in unforseen ways.

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