Intentionally or not, Washington’s policy toward Tehran is flawed politically, historically, and psychologically. It is a policy designed to fail.
Never, ever say “please” if you can get away with spitting in someone’s face. That, in this highly civilized new century, has become the essence of American policy toward Iran. Many in Washington will surely defend this approach as “the only language they understand.” Maybe so. One thing is for sure: it is the only language in which they have heard us speak.
In defense of Washington policy makers, they of course do not know how Tehran might respond to a sincere and consistent policy of inviting Tehran policy makers to sit down and reason together. And they can be excused for seeing little likelihood of being able to convince Tehran of sudden American sincerity between now and the Presidential election.
A Policy Designed to Succeed
A policy designed to persuade Tehran to forgo militarization of nuclear technology would contain at least three shifts in U.S. policy toward Iran and one fundamental shift in the regional context. The policy shifts toward Iran are obvious: respect, inclusion, and security. The regional shift is sufficient movement toward justice for Palestinians to make radical Iranian involvement in the Levant irrelevant. Amazingly, all these U.S. moves, which Washington seems to find so distasteful, are fully consistent with U.S. national security.
Nevertheless, it is worth considering how Americans would feel if China or Russia invaded Mexico, set up a string of huge military bases there, and sailed an offensive Armada into the Gulf of Mexico, while loudly discussing the “option” of attacking the U.S. (of course, with “pinpoint accuracy” to avoid civilian casualties…except for scientists working at the Pentagon), and demanded that the U.S. relinquish not just its most powerful weapons but its right even to conduct research toward some future emergency development of such weapons. How many American politicians would bend their knee and disarm in return for nothing more than the “privilege” of being invited to negotiations? How many who did bow down would win reelection?
Even the most reasoned high-level U.S. pronouncements about Iran come out wrong. Consider Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent statement that Iran is only laying the groundwork for a possible future bomb. That would seem to settle the issue in a rational world. Countries have the right to lay the groundwork for future defense. But no…he then continued to point out that even though he admits Iran is not building nuclear arms, “the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing.” Leon, you really understand human nature. As long as you can spit in their face, don’t ever say please.
But the mistake is more serious than just egregious American bullying that accomplishes nothing more than to irritate Tehran and make a serious global issue dangerously emotional. Even in rational terms, Panetta is singing off-key. Perhaps in Washington, it seems rational for all countries, even those threatened with aggression, to trust Washington. Elsewhere, “rational” would not be the word for such a naive attitude. On the contrary, given Washington’s aggression against Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, its threats against Iran can only be interpreted as making only one policy “rational” for Iranians: maximizing self-defense capabilities. That is not the lesson Washington should be teaching.
In this context of endless bullying without any inducement to compromise, an incident that will inflame passions is almost inevitable.
Whatever you may think of U.S. or Iranian foreign policy, the fact is that every time Tehran underscores its independence and right to self-defense, Washington becomes more aggressive. If this is war, it is a one-sided war. Yes, Iran is insulting, warning, lecturing, posing, and desperately trying both to strengthen itself and to give the appearance of strength: only an unemployed Republican presidential candidate could define that as “aggressive.” Washington, in contrast, is intensifying a crippling campaign of economic warfare within a context of a simultaneously tightening military encirclement.
If Washington is bluffing, it is a convincing bluff, plenty convincing enough to make someone in Tehran’s highly factionalized regime panic. Let us assume, for the purposes of conversation, that Washington’s Masters of the Universe have everything perfectly calibrated to force Tehran to beg for mercy without any risk of a disaster. Let us assume that the disasters of the Iraq invasion, the on-going mess in Afghanistan, and the endless elite-created recession are lessons learned, mistakes never to be repeated. Wiser now, the Masters of the Universe really do know how to run the world, we shall assume.
Still, from Tehran’s perspective, things are starting to look a little scary. What if someone or some faction panics? What if a third party (say, an ambitious Israeli politician or an al Qua’ida type) sets a trap? What if Iranian decision-makers simply decide that Washington needs a slap on the face to wake it up?
What if Tehran calculates that things are getting out of control, that Washington leaders are not “Masters of the Universe” but just provincial politicians wrapped up in their election campaign? What might Tehran do? And how would American politicians, not exactly known for their ability to appreciate how the world looks to Muslims, be likely to react? In the current emotional situation, anything is possible, and almost every conceivable scenario will be bad news for Americans.
People do not respond very well to rude and highly public ultimatums, even when they are persuasive. Any Iranian politician who did so would almost certainly face discharge, arrest, and probably a firing squad for betraying his country. Moreover, how could an Iranian policy maker even defend a proposal to kowtow to the U.S. before his peers? The U.S. over the last decade has fought wars, either itself or via proxies, in Iraq, Somalia, Gaza, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. How many victories did it win?
Psychology suggests Tehran will not accept an ultimatum. History suggests the U.S. will only make matters worse if it starts another war. Both the U.S. secretary of defense and the recently retired Israeli head of Mossad see an attack on Iran’s nuclear establishment as at best a very short-term palliative. The U.S. campaign of economic warfare against Iran is empowering Iranian hardliners, putting the initiative in the hands of Moscow and Beijing, and alienating U.S. allies from Turkey to Japan (both of which are demanding the right to continue buying Iranian oil).
Washington’s policy toward Iran is a policy designed to fail. Why?