By negotiating a Shiite truce, Tehran embarrassed Washington last week and arguably proved itself to be a more potent stabilizer of southern Iraq.
Iran's role in Iraq came as a sharp reminder that the George W. Bush administration's accusations of Iranian mischief notwithstanding, Iranian influence in Iraq is both undeniable and multifaceted. As Washington starts to come to terms with this reality, the Middle East inches closer to its moment of truth: Is the United States ready to share the region with Iran?
As the risk of a U.S.-Iran war is deemed to have dropped in the past few months, in spite of the resignation of Admiral William Fallon and President Bush's designation of Iran as the United States' number one threat, a modicum of optimism for U.S.-Iran relations in 2009 has emerged.
The poisonous atmosphere between the Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administrations has prevented the two countries from exploring areas of common interest. With a new U.S. president taking office in January 2009, and with the Iranian presidential elections in March of that year, both Iran and the U.S. may have new presidents by mid-2009. Such a development would certainly help create a window of opportunity for the two countries to reduce tensions and begin resolving their differences.
But both Tehran and Washington have a proven track record of missing political opportunities. And in this specific case, even if the two parties make use of changing political circumstances, much indicates that readiness to seek a strategic accommodation is lacking in Washington.
This is not necessarily due to a lack of will but due to a failure to appreciate what a resolution to U.S.-Iran tensions would require -- from the United States.
Among the U.S. presidential hopefuls, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton seem intent on continuing Washington's current thinking on Iran. While McCain has sought to soften his position from last year's gaffe about bombing Iran by emphasizing that war would be the absolute last resort, he has been critical of Hillary's rival, Barack Obama, for favoring direct diplomacy.
Hillary Clinton is on the record favoring talks, but prefers to strengthen Washington's containment policy as a first choice. During the presidential debate Wednesday night, the former first lady proposed an anti-Iranian nuclear umbrella for the entire Middle East.
"I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel," she said. "We will let the Iranians know, that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions."
Obama, on the other hand, stands out as the sole candidate articulating a broader strategy on Iran centered on diplomacy. Yet even though Obama is less likely to miss the political window of opportunity in 2009, it remains to be seen if his administration would be clear on what Iran would expect in a give and take -- and if he is ready to consider such an arrangement.
The discussions in Washington regarding any potential opening to Tehran have centered on boosting economic incentives in hope that larger economic carrots would compel a change in Iranian behavior. At times, the idea of offering security guarantees has been considered in an effort to deprive Iran of incentives to develop a nuclear deterrence against the U.S.
Though both of these components may be necessary to put U.S.-Iran relations on a different footing, they are likely not sufficient. The notion that the U.S.-Iran standoff can be resolved solely through economic incentives and limited security guarantees is premised on the realities of yesteryear's Middle East. Current facts on the ground are quite different -- Iran's regional influence is unquestionable and rolling Iran back out of Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps even Gaza may no longer be realistic.
The question is no longer -- if it ever was -- what economic incentives are required to change Iranian behavior. Rather, to reach a settlement with Iran that could help stabilize Iraq, prevent a Taliban resurrection in Afghanistan, reach a political deal in Lebanon and create a better climate to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. must arguably grant Iran a role in the region and begin focusing on how to influence Iranian behavior rather than how to roll back Iranian influence.
Neither Washington nor Tehran can wish the other away. While the United States' days in Iraq may be numbered, it is not likely to leave the entire Middle East anytime soon. Nor can Washington continue to design policies and arrangements in the region based on the notion that Iran can be neglected and excluded. Sooner or later, Iran and the U.S. must learn how to share the region.
But a full comprehension of what a future Middle East order with Iran fully rehabilitated in its political and economic structure has not been reached or considered in Washington. While keeping Iran out is no longer a realistic option -- at a minimum Iran has sufficient spoiler power to undermine any initiatives aimed at prolonging Tehran's exclusion -- bringing Iran in from the cold will have momentous repercussions for the region's order and for U.S. allies that currently are benefiting from Iran's exclusion.
It is understandable that Washington is unprepared for this scenario. After all, Tehran has itself been notoriously incapable -- or unwilling -- to define the regional role it envisions for itself and the implications this would have for the U.S. and Iran's neighbors. With Tehran reluctant to clarify what it wants, Washington has been left guessing. Tehran's failure to be more forthcoming about its ambitions has also enabled rivals to describe Iranian objectives as hegemonic.
Nevertheless, reality requires Washington to begin considering not if, but the extent of an Iranian role in the region that the U.S. and its allies can agree to. This may necessitate a paradigm shift in Washington's approach to Iran and the Middle East, but failure to reconcile with Iranian demands justified by the new balance in the region will likely disable future administrations from turning political opportunities into real diplomatic breakthroughs -- irrespective of their positive intentions.
Trita Parsi, author of the newly released "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S." (Yale), is president of the National Iranian American Council. This analysis was first published by IPS.