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In the Middle East, Hawks Still Count

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 28, 2009

PARIS -- "President" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brutal clampdown on his opponents is a tragedy for Iranians. But the shredding of Iran's pretensions of being a stable, democratic state may offer positive change in the Middle East in the longer term.

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Such an outcome is far from guaranteed -- and is likely to come only after sharp new regional tensions or even violence sparked by Iran, Israel or both nations acting separately in reinforcing fashion. The idea that the use of force can make things better has not been abandoned in the Middle East.

The election crisis has entered the all-important moment of interpretation by Iran and its neighbors. What counts now is not what Washington says or does but what Tehran, Jerusalem, Riyadh and Cairo make of the loss of prestige, political unity and leverage suffered by the Iranian "president" and the hard-line ayatollahs who support him.

Some hope that Ahmadinejad will emerge chastened and seeking to get back into the international community's good graces. "The sense that the Iranian revolutionaries were on a triumphal march across the region has been deflated," a senior French official told me. "They now have to reassess policies that have brought them economic and political disaster at home and deep distrust abroad."

Syria's decision to highlight a warming of relations with the United States and prospects for peace talks with Israel -- publicly endorsed last week in Damascus by President Bashar al-Assad -- goes in that direction. Washington and Paris are working together to wean Iran's main Arab ally from an enfeebled Iranian regime.

But Ahmadinejad's default position in crisis is to become more confrontational, as the thuggish beating, killing and jailing of protesters in the streets of Tehran have shown. His reasonable facsimile of a dictatorship is more likely to act as such regimes usually do: They exhibit the same aggressive, chest-thumping behavior in foreign policy to intimidate or impress the home audience.

The clampdown serves the purposes of those who feel their grip on power is loosened by responding positively to President Obama's offer to negotiate. They raised the threshold of what Obama must swallow to get a deal to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"In the short term relations will definitely get worse, but in the long term the U.S. really has to rethink its policy," Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American studies department at Tehran University, told the Reuters news agency. Marandi thus vaulted to the top of the list of candidates for the 2009 Hoagland Trophy for Unadulterated Chutzpah, Persian division.

Ahmadinejad does have several jokers up his sleeve. Iran has not been deeply involved in creating troubles for Afghanistan's beleaguered, U.S.-supported regime. But President Hamid Karzai worried aloud to a visitor last week that the Iranian turmoil may end the pattern of relative restraint. The same holds true in Iraq.

It is not clear if Ahmadinejad grasps how dangerous such tactics would be. Openly stirring the fire -- especially in ways that endanger U.S. forces -- would weaken Obama's political ability to restrain Israel from carrying out its implicit threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who visited Paris last week, also faces serious short-term pressures on his unwieldy coalition government. He heard a clear echo from President Nicolas Sarkozy of what Washington says to him: Netanyahu's June 14 speech finally endorsing a Palestinian state was appreciated, but it did not buy him any relief from demands by Obama and Sarkozy that Israel freeze any increase in settlement activity on the West Bank.

French officials are encouraged that Netanyahu's carefully hedged overture -- ostensibly to the Palestinians but basically aimed at shoring up sagging support in Washington -- gained him a boost in Israeli opinion. Green shoots of peace are glimpsed in some quarters here.

But the region's history suggests that great shocks more often create the conditions for conciliation than do diplomatic parleys. Anwar Sadat got the Sinai back from Menachem Begin by going to war and then unexpectedly going to Jerusalem.

Israel launched a harsh but effective three-week assault against Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip in late December. That operation has been followed by increasingly moderate statements from Hamas leaders who live in Gaza. They suffered directly, unlike the radicals who live comfortably in Damascus. Palestinian security on the West Bank has also improved.

Doves are lovely, inspirational birds that we admire. In the Middle East, hawks also count.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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