Engage Iran, support pipeline

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in Washington this week and, in addition to meeting with President Bush, will address a joint session of Congress - an indicator of the dramatic change in the once-chilly relationship between India and the US.

Equally remarkable has been the upturn in the India-Pakistan relationship, which the Bush administration has helped promote.

But by doggedly opposing the projected gas pipeline from Iran across Pakistan to India, the administration is still forgoing a key opportunity to bind India and Pakistan together further, while also engaging Iran and giving it a greater stake in the stability of the region.

The opposition to the pipeline reflects a wider failing in US policy - illustrated by its approach to Cuba and North Korea, among others - that stems from the assumption that the best way to handle hostile countries is through pressure and isolation, rather than by steadily integrating them into the global economy. True, the former approach has had some success in helping force Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon as well as Libya's abandonment of its plans for weapons of mass destruction; but otherwise its record has been one of unrelieved failure.

By contrast, China's evolution demonstrates how the behavior of a regime that was once widely seen by US leaders as totalitarian and subversive can be moderated when its rulers develop a major stake in the world economy - and in not promoting instability.

A common argument is that engagement with Iran amounts to rewarding an undemocratic, anti-American regime. Yet for all of its failings on the democratic front - and there are many - Iran's political order is far more open than that of regimes in the Middle East and Central Asia with which the US deals and is even allied. Moreover, détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China contributed to significant political change in both countries that were one-party dictatorships wedded to an ideology that rejected the very idea of capitalist democracy. And while Iran appears to seek nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union and China already had them.

South Asia presents a recent and compelling example of how economics can change the politics even between states that seem implacably hostile to one another. India's economic growth over the past decade is creating a new business and political class whose success is tied to regional stability. Whereas Indian elites would once have seen the collapse of Pakistan as a victory, today they know that Pakistan's failure threatens India's own progress: Anarchy and extremism on India's borders would frighten off investors.

This is the spirit the Bush administration should seek to foster in countries presently hostile toward the US.

Iran is a good place to start. Iran's large middle classes and liberal-minded urban youth are agents of change. Many young Iranians loathe the rule of the mullahs and are markedly pro-American. The US should use this ferment to promote openness, not stand apart from it.

Even on the geopolitical front, Iran and the US have some convergent interests. Both are threatened by Sunni fundamentalism, which will only grow if terrorism in Iraq continues, attracting Sunni militants from across the Arab world. Moreover, Iraq's fragmentation would be defeat for the US but would also bring chaos to Iran's doorstep.

But the Bush administration needs to understand that positive transformations in Iran cannot be brought about by rhetoric about democracy and regime change combined with pressure for one-sided Iranian concessions over its nuclear program and international policies. Such a course has the perverse effect of strengthening Iranian hard-liners by allowing them to play the nationalist card. A similar approach to India during the cold war only fueled mass nationalist hostility toward the US - including, it must be pointed out, among committed Indian democrats.

What is needed instead, in both Iran and Pakistan, is what has happened in India recently: the increasing influence of those whose fortunes are tied to stability and cooperation in the region. The gas pipeline would help that process. And while American support for this project would be an excellent beginning for détente with Tehran, the US need not do anything to help build it. It only has to cease opposing it.

A change in the American policy on the pipeline could help lay the groundwork for a policy toward Iran that would encourage openness through engagement rather than containment. This would move the US away from its current strategy toward Iran, which has produced none of the desired results.

These points are worth reflecting on as Washington prepares to receive Prime Minister Singh, because one matter that will surely come upis the pipeline.

Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Rajan Menon, also a fellow at the foundation, is professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

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