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Yet Another Linkage Theory

September 21, 2010

This opinion piece in the Guardian recycles one of my least-favorite ideas in international relations: the wanton abuse of the idea of “linkage.” The origins of the idea lie in the era of Nixon and Kissinger, when they sought to use the détente’s concessions to pressure the Communist bloc to end support of revolutionary movements abroad. Unfortunately, though, the idea did not actually pan out, since revolutionaries in the third world usually had cause to rise up with or without aid from abroad. Linkage turned out to be tenuous at best.

But the idea remains popular because linkage serves as a way to justify one’s policy preferences with a theoretical model of how a region’s politics work. The article provides a clear case:

Zalman Shoval, a former Israel ambassador to the US who is close to power circles in Jerusalem, remarked that “the Obama administration felt that progress on the peace process would set the stage for an effective regional coalition against Tehran. The Israeli approach was the exact opposite, stressing that if Iran’s nuclear programme were neutralised, then that would set the stage for a real peace process, since that would weaken the most radicalised elements in the Arab world who sought to actively undermine any prospects for peace, especially Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.”

It seems pretty obvious that the US and Israel are pushing their own hierarchy of interests on each other. The solution:

We – an Israeli and a Palestinian – believe there’s a way out of this tangle. As the risks grow, so do the benefits of bold thinking. We teach our students at the University of Maryland: “The Israelis and Palestinians are doomed to live together.” This summer, we added to this formulation, “… or are doomed to die together”. This state of affairs demands a striking paradigm shift, through which an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could actually neutralise the Iranian nuclear peril. This kind of linkage may be the only way to achieve results in which all the parties – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans and Iranians – can “win”.

I guess in a tautological sense, it is true that if all the parties choose to view these issues as critical to resolving each other, then resolving them provides a “win” for everyone. Unfortunately, social construction and paradigm shifting only goes so far. How do the authors envision an Israeli-Palestinian settlement stopping Iran?

With a peace agreement in hand, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, could then address his Iranian counterpart, and pointedly ask: “Mr Ahmadinejad, have you been developing a nuclear weapons capability to stand against Israel in solidarity with the Palestinian people?” – and then add, “I am the president of the Palestinians and I say to you now, ‘No thanks’. We have made peace with our neighbours and need to move on to a new constructive era.”

Never mind that Palestinian solidarity is a rhetorical card for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to try to allay Arab skepticism about Iranian intentions in the region, and that Iran’s Islamic Republic has always leveraged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to build broader Islamic support. Iran’s nuclear program is not a symbol of “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” it is a nuclear program to build Iran’s national capabilities and prestige, and further the Iranian goal of achieving a regional preponderance of power. While we should always remember that Ahmadinejad does not have the final say on Iranian nuclear and military policy, since Iran has Khamenei for that, the notion that Abbas and Ahmadinejad are equals in anything except rhetoric is laughable. That Palestine asking politely would stop the Iranian nuclear program is ludicrous.

Furthermore, Palestinian opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon would only add to Arab opposition at the margins. While the debate over the Arab public opinion still rages, it is relatively uncontroversial to say that the Arab governments which have any chance of militarily balancing against Iran, and thus the ones that matter in Tehran’s nuclear calculus, are already opposed to its nuclear ambitions. The Saudi Arabian arms deal and the statement by the UAE’s ambassador in support of bombing Iran demonstrate that Arab governments are already warming to the containment of Iran.

Nor would peace with the Palestinians make the Israelis feel any safer living in range of Iranian warheads. It would be ludicrous for Iran to launch nuclear weapons at Israel for the sake of Palestinians, after all, Palestine would likely take significant damage and certainly be heavily contaminated with fallout. No, making peace with the Palestinians would not remove Iran’s cause for pressuring Israel, which will probably never really feel safe entering a balance of terror with the Islamic Republic, particularly since Iran would retain its balancing coalition with the Syrians and Hezbollah. Israeli and Iranian hostility has more to do with issues of regional power, Tehran’s interest in Jerusalem has always been instrumental to those ends.

However, the notion that resolving the Iranian issue makes solving Israeli-Palestinian peace any easier is similarly flawed. Removing an Iranian nuclear weapon does nothing to defuse the demographic time-bomb or smooth over the political and geographic complexities that hinder a two-state solution’s chance for success. The pitfalls of the peace process preceded fears about an Iranian nuclear bomb and will yet outlast them.

There might be some temptation on the part of policymakers to push linkage to justify the willpower and diplomatic credibility they expend in pursuing the peace process or efforts to sanction Iran. Sunk costs are sunk costs, though, and we should not pretend that advancing pet policy goals make our fulfilling competing objectives any easier.

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