Thomas Friedman — Accept that we have empowered Iran

Last week, President Bush appointed a "war czar," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, to oversee everything we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan — which raises the question: Who was doing this job up to now? The answer, amazingly, is no one. We’re like a fine restaurant that has decided five years after it’s opened — and has lost most of its customers — that it might be good to hire a head chef. Better late than never. Lute comes advertised as smart and tough. Good. I hope his first memo to the president starts like this:

Mr. President, if you look around the region, all those we’ve tried to isolate — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban — are stronger today than they were two years ago. We have to reassess our strategy, beginning by facing up to the fact that we’ve fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

We brought down the hard walls that surrounded Iran by destroying Iran’s two arch-enemies — the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. As a result, we are dealing today with an emboldened, resurgent Iran, which has taken advantage of our good works to expand its economic, cultural, religious and geopolitical influence into Persian-speaking western Afghanistan and into Shiite Iraq.

With Saddam gone, none of the Arab states is strong enough to balance Iran. They are all either too weak or too dysfunctional. This means we have two choices. We can be the regional power balancing Iran, which will require keeping thousands of troops in the area indefinitely. Or we have to engage Tehran in a high-level dialogue, in which we focus on our mutual interests in stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq. You have to choose, Mr. President: I can’t do my job if you don’t face the fact that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and our energy gluttony — have empowered Iran.

War with Iran is not inevitable. Let me remind you how well we worked with the Iranians in Afghanistan, initially. As you recall, we had a regular cooperative dialogue between our ambassadors in Kabul. The Iranians helped to deliver us the Northern Alliance. Then they cut their financial support for their favorite warlord in Herat, Ismail Khan, so that the pro-American Afghan government could extend its authority there. When, in early 2002, we gave them the names of members of a Qaida group operating in Meshad, Iran, they rolled them up and put them on a plane to Afghanistan. There was much more, until things went sour.


I don’t know who is responsible for the breakdown — the Iranians point to your calling them part of the "axis of evil," after they had helped us so much. We can point to their involvement in bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2003. But for the past few years we’ve been in Cold War with them — and today their proxies are beating our proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq.

As Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival," points out: "Stability in the Middle East is now about U.S.-Iran relations, and it is fantasy to think that we can go back to the old days where the Cairo-Riyadh-Amman axis manages the region for us." Iran will not allow a stable Iraq to emerge if its interests are not protected, and if the new balance of power in Iraq — one based on a Shiite-Kurdish majority — is not recognized.

Yes, the Saudis will go nuts, but look what they’ve been doing: In private the Saudis tell us we can’t leave Iraq and in public their king denounces our occupation there as "illegal." Of course, we must protect the Saudis. But they and their Sunni allies in Iraq have to accept the new reality there, and stop treating the Shiites as a lower form of life. Then we can cut them the best deal possible. If not, they’re on their own. Our soldiers are not going to die to restore Sunni minority rule to Iraq.

At the same time, we have to open a dialogue with Hamas — not to embrace it, but to lay out a gradual pathway that will bring it into relations with Israel. As Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Palestinian expert and author of "The Iron Cage," points out: "If we let the Palestinian Authority be destroyed, and then we keep Hamas isolated" — even though it won a democratic election that we sponsored — "we will end up with the hard boys, the gangs you see today on the streets of Gaza, who respond to no authority at all."

If I thought that isolating Iran and Hamas was working, I’d continue it. But it manifestly is not — any more than isolating Castro has worked. So either we find a way to draw them in or we’ll be fighting them — and the hard boys — in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan for a long, long time.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.

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