On March 26, 2007, New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West hosted a panel discussion on “Iran and the Middle East: How to Shape a Security Regime Acceptable to All Regional Actors.” The issue of Iran’s nuclear capability has unsettled the international community, particularly Western nations. Analysts contend that a peaceful and stable Middle East is vital to world peace and economic advancement. Bordered by Azerbaijan and Russia to the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, and Turkey and Iraq to the west, Iran is an imperative regional player. But it has been on the sideline of the global dialogue for many years.
The roundtable explored Iran’s role in regional stability in the past, present, and future. The discussion was moderated by Mustapha Tlili, the Center for Dialogues’ founder and director, and featured Richard Bulliet, Professor of History at Columbia University; Mohammad Khazaee, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations; Flynt Leverett, Senior Fellow and Director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative at the New America Foundation and former senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council; and William F. Vendley, Secretary General of the World Conference on Religion for Peace (WCRP).
Mustapha Tlili began by thanking everyone for attending. He explained that the NYU Center for Dialogues is dedicated to facilitating understanding between the Islamic and the Western worlds and engages in dialogue based on solid scholarship with the objective of influencing policy. The Center approaches the relationship between the Muslim world and the West from four angles: 1) their strategic relationship; 2) the intellectual reform movements in the Muslim world; 3) governance in the Muslim world; 4) and Muslim communities in the West.
Tlili noted that Iran’s role in the Middle East is currently one of the most important issues on the international agenda. Iran is an imperative to regional stability, but has been on the sideline of global dialogue for many years. The aim of this discussion, said Tlili, is to produce recommendations that may be of use, especially to players in the upcoming American presidential elections. Tlili then introduced the four speakers, asking each speaker to respond to a lead question that he would pose.
The first question, directed at Professor Richard Bulliet, addressed the relationship between historical memory and policy formation. Professor Bulliet was asked to comment on the history of U.S.–Iran relations and its effect on the present situation.
Professor Bulliet began by noting that the enormity of the subject would oblige him to be selective in his response. After characterizing the U.S.–Iranian relationship in recent history as one marked by unreciprocated respect and a willingness to negotiate on Iran’s part, Professor Bulliet proceeded to ask whether there are ways forward that do not depend on what happens in the White House. Because of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, public discussion about Iran remains fixated on the U.S.’s role in any upcoming developments, but Professor Bulliet suggested another, more historical way to look at things. He pointed to the 19th–century Straits Convention as a possible model for regional security.
The Straits Convention was a regional agreement between the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and the great powers of Europe that determined who could pass from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and under what circumstances. The situation in Iraq today, said Bulliet, invites a similar regional agreement. In his opinion, the main question for Iraq and the future of the region is not U.S. troop presence, but rather Iraqi airspace. The air of Iraq, said Bulliet, is the attack corridor between many neighboring states (i.e. Iran–Israel, Saudi Arabia–Iran, etc.) and it is assumed that the United States will decide who can fly warplanes in this airspace. A military convention to de–militarize Iraqi airspace would mean that no warplanes can fly over Iraq, and no air support can be provided by foreign militaries to groups on the ground in Iraq.
Professor Bulliet argued that this proposal has several advantages. First, it can be achieved by regional parties with contiguous airspace (Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran) without the United States. Second, enforcement of the agreement would require the engagement of the United Nations or NATO to provide the necessary radar stations/enforcement squadrons to ensure its success.
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