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US president George W. Bush can be faulted for many things, but not for a lack of imagination. It is not the least of ironies that Mr Bush?s breathtaking enthusiasm for thinking big can be put to an even grander and far more winning purpose than the folly that is Iraq. The pieces necessary for the construction of a regional security system stretching from Tehran to Tel Aviv are moving into place. Mr Bush may not have intended such a development, but he should not ignore an opportunity to lead in the creation of a historic grand design that promises peace and prosperity for this turbulent region.

Building a framework for stabilising relations in the Middle East requires strong states capable of making and keeping agreements that break with conventional wisdom. It also needs a great power, such as the US, that is bold enough to create a new foundation for its relationship with the area?s peoples and governments.

Iran is one of the poles of this system. It is stronger and more significant today than at any time since the Islamic revolution almost three decades ago, in part as a consequence of US policies over the past 15 years. Iran shares its border with numerous countries, a symbolic indicator of the security concerns that must be addressed, not only to meet Iranian needs but also to create a more lasting basis for stability in the region.

The Bush administration may not like the Iranian regime, but it seems to know a brick wall when it sees one. The US decision to engage Iran indicates that it is prepared to establish a basis for examining a range of mutual security concerns in a serious manner. It is also encouraging that Washington took this step, not because it wanted to, but rather because the reality of Iranian power compelled it to.

If the dialogue with Iran is to be productive it will not be easy. But such a rapprochement would lay the groundwork for a historic departure from the instability that has plagued the area for decades. To do so, the concerns of other strong states in the region ? namely Israel ? have to be brought into the equation.

Israel, like Iran, has myriad security concerns that have spawned one of the world?s most powerful arsenals. This arsenal, which features an integrated nuclear weapons array, reportedly including a second strike capability, has proven inadequate to the two main challenges Israel has faced in the past decade or so ? the Palestinian rebellion and the missile attacks by Iraq in the first Gulf war. It has also been unable to stem Israel?s growing dependence on an American security umbrella.

A serious security dialogue between the US and Iran that focuses on Iran?s nuclear aspirations will have to address Iranian security concerns. These include Israel?s nuclear weapons and a doctrine that considers the regime in Tehran its most potent regional antagonist. If Iran is to become a partner rather than an adversary in the effort to construct a regional security system, Israel will need to be at the table.

With the right kind of leadership from the US, the creation of a Palestinian state along the June 1967 frontier can help end the strategic stand-off between Iran and Israel. As a consequence of the intifada, Israel has begun a process of redeployment in the occupied territories. Reducing Israeli concerns about its ?eastern front? can proceed in tandem with an end to Israel?s occupation. The territory from which Israel withdraws in the West Bank can be maximised if its security concerns east of the Jordan River are addressed.

The region?s weaker states can only benefit from a reconciliation of Israeli and Iranian security interests and the creation of a Palestinian state. Iraq?s reconstruction will never be easy, but the prospects of success are enhanced if its neighbours have a stake in its success rather than an interest in its failure. Meanwhile, there are few substantive obstacles to a reconciliation of Israeli and Syrian interests in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. None of these would prove decisive in a regional environment that places a premium on answering Israel?s need for secure and recognised borders. Lebanon, with other interested parties, has also begun to consider workable options for closing the file on the disputed Sheba Farms.

Mr Bush has made one fateful choice in the Middle East during his remarkable tenure ? the invasion of Iraq. By negotiating in good faith with Iran he can make another choice, and by doing so redeem his current blood-stained legacy and that of the region?s long suffering millions.

The writer is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace

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