When the subject of diplomacy with Iran comes up, the debate in Washington usually centers on whether a deal with Iran on its nuclear program would stick. But Middle Eastern diplomatic history is full of surprising twists, including diplomatic breakthroughs. Israelis understand this.
Remember, in 1974, when Israel and Syria signed their Yom Kippur War “Separation of Forces Agreement,” they had just fought a disastrous war that lasted less than three weeks and killed nearly 20,000 people, including several thousand Israelis. The situation was grave for Israel, who was desperately fighting for its survival against a neighboring country who had a patron — the Soviet Union — with thousands of nuclear missiles at its disposal.
Yet unfortunately, neoconservatives such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich do not want you to contemplate how Israel and Syria negotiated a diplomatic agreement that both sides have honored for nearly four decades, creating security and stability on their border.
Instead, they want you to believe that it would be inconceivable that a country supposedly bent on annihilating Israel through invasion and backed by nuclear weapons could be trusted to make a deal. That was exactly the definition of Syria in 1974 and it is the definition of Iran today.
The parallel between Syria in 1973 and Iran in 2012 is clear. Just like in 1973, a war with Iran today would unleash, according to pro-Israel commentator Jeff Goldberg, massive dangers to both Israel and the whole Middle East. Just like in 1973, a war with Iran today would still require a diplomatic deal tomorrow.
Importantly, military action with no clear endgame, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reminds, would not resolve our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, according to leading Iran expert Vali Nasr, it would likely accelerate the Iranian nuclear activities about which the West is so concerned.
Yet when neoconservative war advocates, such as Max Boot, call for pre-emptive military action against Iran, they often cite the Israeli actions in the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1981 Osirak attack against Iraq’s nuclear facilities as evidence that military strikes are the only path available for the West. That’s engaging, as former national intelligence officer for the Middle East Paul Pillar explains, selective history.
However, engaging in selective history — such as ignoring the lessons of Israel’s Yom Kippur War and diplomacy with Syria — can lead to major miscalculations that, in today’s case of Iran, may undercut the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
A fair reading of Israel’s history with its adversaries should therefore make us cautious about using military force to achieve this goal.
Today’s situation with Iran is perilously close to Israel’s situation with Syria prior to the 1973 war, where stalemate dominated and diplomacy was in short supply. The end result of that experience was that diplomacy was still needed to resolve the conflict between the two countries.
Interestingly, diplomacy with Iran today should be even more plausible than it was between Israel and Syria in 1974, as leading Israeli national security officials such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan do not view Iran as an existential threat, as opposed to the very real existential threat that Syria posed to Israel in 1973.
And like in 1973, what we currently have, according to Gary Sick, a National Security Council official in the Reagan administration, is a stalemate. We should learn from the 1973 stalemate experience and move more aggressively diplomatically, so that it doesn’t take a war in the region to show us once again that, even after a war, we’ll still need diplomacy to resolve our concerns.
This is primarily because a military attack against Iran — despite the protests of the war advocates — will also produce a stalemate.
The only way to avoid stalemate — other than by concluding a diplomatic deal — is by massively invading and occupying Iran — a country that is three times the size of and much more nationalistic and well-defended than Iraq. Fortunately, Americans wisely do not support a repeat of the Iraq war in Iran.
Therefore, it is time to obtain security and stability in the region through concerted diplomatic activity. Avoiding war is a precursor to achieving such stability, as war will only produce stalemate at best. At worst, war would be uncontrollable, unleashing a scenario where the overall outcome that we want to avoid — a massive war in the Middle East that could threaten Israel’s survival — would become a reality.
So let’s skip the war and just move to the diplomacy. After all, if the Israelis could cut a deal in 1974 with a country like Syria, certainly the international community and the U.S. could seek to do the same today with a country like Iran.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)