Give Iran time to change

The Washington Post Sunday - - OPINION SUNDAY - FA­REED ZAKARIA com­ments@fa­reedza­karia.com

In selling the nu­clear deal with Iran, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been care­ful to point out that it is just an agree­ment on nu­clear is­sues. “[ The deal] solves one par­tic­u­lar prob­lem,” Pres­i­dent Obama ex­plained in his news con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day. And sup­port­ers and crit­ics alike are quick to sug­gest that this move is quite dif­fer­ent from Richard Nixon’s open­ing to China, which trans­formed China and its re­la­tions with the world. Iran, af­ter all, is a rogue regime that chants “Death to Amer­ica” and funds an­tiAmer­i­can terror across the Mid­dle East.

But let’s re­call what China looked like at the time Henry Kissinger went on his se­cret trip to Bei­jing in July 1971. Mao Ze­dong was, with­out ques­tion, the most rad­i­cal anti-Amer­i­can leader in the world, sup­port­ing vi­o­lent guer­rilla groups across Asia and be­yond. And while it didn’t chant “Death to Amer­ica,” Bei­jing was the prin­ci­pal sup­porter of the North Viet­namese, send­ing them troops, sup­plies and funds to fight and kill Amer­i­can sol­diers ev­ery day. China was also in the midst of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, one of the most bar­baric pe­ri­ods of its mod­ern history.

Ini­tially, the open­ing to China changed none of this. Dur­ing the talks in­volv­ing Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Chi­nese Premier Zhou En­lai, the Chi­nese re­fused to end their sup­port for the North Viet­namese regime or even to en­cour­age Hanoi to ne­go­ti­ate se­ri­ously with Washington. In fact, while Nixon and Kissinger were talk­ing to the Chi­nese, Bei­jing’s ship­ments of arms to North Viet­nam were in­creas­ing. The his­to­rian Qiang Zhai, whose book on China’s in­volve­ment in the Viet­nam War draws on Chi­nese ar­chives, doc­u­ments that be­tween 1971 and 1972, China’s ship­ments of guns, ar­tillery, ra­dio trans­mit­ters and ve­hi­cles all rose sharply. And just as to­day we are told that there was a myth­i­cal bet­ter deal to be had with Iran, con­ser­va­tives ex­co­ri­ated Nixon for selling out Tai­wan, claim­ing that rather than hand­ing over Tai­wan’s spot in the United Na­tions to Bei­jing, Washington could have done more to ne­go­ti­ate a dual-seat ar­range­ment.

But over time, China did slow down its sup­port for rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments in coun­tries like In­done­sia, Malaysia and Thai­land. And its re­la­tions with Viet­nam soured — for many rea­sons, but cer­tainly the open­ing to the United States was one of them. These shifts fi­nally led to a whole­sale re­think­ing of China’s for­eign pol­icy — but seven years af­ter Kissinger’s meet­ings, un­der a new Chi­nese leader, Deng Xiaop­ing, who first con­sol­i­dated power and then broke with Mao’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary world­view.

On Iran, let’s make sev­eral caveats. China’s move to­ward the West was fu­eled by its split with the Soviet Union and, per­haps, its to­tal iso­la­tion. Iran faces no such dire se­cu­rity threat and, as an oil-pro­duc­ing coun­try that, even un­der sanc­tions, gets tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enues, it has never been truly iso­lated or des­ti­tute. And yet, Iran clearly re­sents be­ing treated as a pariah in the world. A new gen­er­a­tion of Ira­ni­ans has demon­strated that frus­tra­tion in many dif­fer­ent ways. And a new set of lead­ers — who have some in­flu­ence though not com­plete con­trol — wants to re­store Iran to a more nor­mal sta­tus.

Will that mean that Tehran’s for­eign poli­cies will mod­er­ate? History sug­gests that as coun­tries get more in­te­grated into the world and the global econ­omy, they have fewer in­cen­tives to be spoil­ers and more to main­tain sta­bil­ity. That is surely why so many hard-lin­ers in Iran are op­posed to the nu­clear deal. They be­lieve it will take Iran in the wrong di­rec­tion, one that might soften the rev­o­lu­tion­ary edge of the regime.

Of course, Iran will fol­low its na­tional in­ter­ests and some­times these will con­flict with U.S. pol­icy sharply. But on the United States’ most press­ing chal­lenges in the Mid­dle East right now — the threat from the Is­lamic State and the sta­bil­ity of the Iraqi and Afghan gov­ern­ments— Iran and the United States ac­tu­ally have over­lap­ping in­ter­ests. ( Yes, Iran is fund­ing mili­tias in Iraq and Syria, but they are the sin­gle most ef­fec­tive force on the ground that is fight­ing the Is­lamic State. Should it stop?) The sec­tar­ian war in the Mid­dle East — be­ing fu­eled by Sun­nis as well as Shi­ites — will con­tinue. But fi­nally Washington and oth­ers can talk to both sides of the di­vide to try to bro­ker a re­duc­tion of ten­sions.

No sig­nif­i­cant change is go­ing to hap­pen in Iran in the next few months. It didn’t in China. It hasn’t in Cuba or Burma. But over the next 10 years, if there is greater con­tact, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, com­merce and cap­i­tal­ism be­tween Iran and the rest of the world, surely this will grad­u­ally em­power those Ira­ni­ans who see their coun­try’s des­tiny as be­ing part of the mod­ern world, not in op­po­si­tion to it.

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