article

06.02.10

Treat Israel Like Iran

Israel’s deadly response to the Gaza-bound flotilla showed how differently the U.S. treats Israel and Iran. Stephen Kinzer argues it’s time to treat them in the same way.

Quick, name the rogue state in the Middle East. Hints: It has an active nuclear-weapons program but conducts it in secret; its security organs regularly kill perceived enemies of the state, both at home and abroad; its political process has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists who believe they are doing God's will; its violent recklessness destabilizes the world's most volatile region; and it seems as deaf to reason as it is impervious to pressure. Also: Its name begins with “I”.

Instead of treating Israel and Iran so differently, the West might try placing them in the same policy basket, and seeking equivalent concessions from both.

How you answer this riddle depends in part on where you sit. From an American perspective, the obvious answer is Iran. Iran seems alone and friendless, a pariah in the world, and deservedly so given its long list of sins. In Washington's view, Iran poses one of the major threats to global security.

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Many people in the world, however, see Iran quite differently: as just another struggling country with valuable resources, no more or less threatening than any other, ruled by a regime that, while thuggish, wins grudging admiration for standing up to powerful bullies. They are angrier at Israel, which they see as violent, repressive and contemptuous of international law, but nonetheless endlessly coddled by the United States.

The way American diplomats have spent the last few days shows how differently the U.S. treats Israel and Iran. After Monday's deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla of ships bringing relief aid to Gaza, a U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, flew to Tel Aviv and then traveled to Ramallah. He urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to salvage whatever possible from the debacle and look for common ground, even though prospects for peace are remote.

American diplomats at the United Nations, meanwhile, are working intensely to win support for punishing new sanctions on Iran. Their message about Iran is the precise opposite of the one Mitchell is preaching to Israelis and Palestinians: Negotiations are hopeless, oppressive regimes understand only force, and all compromise equals appeasement.

It is always difficult to compare the danger one country poses to global security with that posed by another, and it is natural to treat old friends differently from longtime enemies. Israel is a far more open and free society than Iran. Millions of Americans feel personally tied to its fate. Nonetheless the contrast in American attitudes toward the two countries is striking. Toward Israel the attitude is: You may be rascals sometimes, but whatever pranks you pull, you're our friend and we'll forgive you. Toward Iran, it's the opposite: You are our implacable enemy, so nothing you do short of abject surrender will satisfy us.

This dichotomy is now on especially vivid display. Israel's raid on the Gaza flotilla, like the Gaza occupation itself, has evoked only mild clucks of disapproval in Washington. But when Turkey and Brazil worked out the framework of a possible nuclear compromise with Iran a couple of weeks ago, American officials angrily rejected it.

Instead of treating Israel and Iran so differently, the West might try placing them in the same policy basket, and seeking equivalent concessions from both.

It is easy to denounce Israel and Iran as disturbers of whatever peace exists in the Middle East, and to lament that the region will be in turmoil as long as they keep behaving as they do. More important is the fact that both countries are powerful, and can upset any accord to which they are not a party. Punishing, sanctioning, and isolating them would be emotionally satisfying, but it is not likely to help calm the region.

Instead of pushing Israel and Iran into corners, making them feel besieged and friendless, the world should realize that without both of them, there will be no peace in the Middle East. This requires a new, more creative approach to the challenge of protecting Israel over the long term. It also requires a willingness to engage Iran. As Lyndon Johnson famously reasoned when he reappointed J. Edgar Hoover to head the FBI, “It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

Treating Israel and Iran more equally would also mean judging their nuclear programs by equivalent standards. If Israel and Iran are placed under the same set of rigorous nuclear safeguards, the Middle East will quickly become a safer place.

In the same spirit of equality, the world should do whatever possible to encourage higher human-rights standards in Israel and Iran. Ruling groups in both countries treat some honest critics as traitors or terrorists. They rule without the tolerance that illuminates Jewish and Persian history.

Israel and Iran have come to pose parallel challenges. They are the region's outcasts—yet the region will never stabilize until they are brought back out of the geopolitical cold. Rather than stoke their escalating hostility, the U.S. should work to reduce tensions between them. Holding them to the same standards would be a start.

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His next book, Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future, will be published in June.