Fear, Honor, Interests

If Washington were willing to recognize that Iranians have fear of nuclear powers who threaten them, want to be treated with honor, and have the same set of interests that all other countries have, then Washington would be well on the way toward devising a successful policy toward Iran.

Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs Dempsey gave a brilliant one sentence “International Relations 101” to a bunch of bewildered Congresspeople in late February in a pointed remark about Iran:

all strategy is some combination of reaction to fear, honor and interests [Think Progress 3/1/12; thanks to Friday Lunch Club 5/5/12 for alerting me to this report.]

I heartily congratulate the Obama Administration for what may be the most intelligent soundbite on foreign policy heard this century from a Washington official. Perhaps there is hope after all.

But here’s the puzzle: if the Administration understands that all states make strategy in reaction to “fear, honor, and interests,” then why does Washington persist in ignoring these three factors in formulating its policy toward Iran?

Fear. Iran has faced daily threats of nuclear attack from Israel and the U.S. for a decade. Not only do various officials continuously make outrageous verbal threats of nuclear attack on non-nuclear Iran, but the disposition of U.S. and Israeli forces backs up those threats with patently aggressive postures. No rational Iranian can fail to wish for some means of defending his homeland.

Honor. Few and far between are the regimes that have been in power for three decades in a major state without being diplomatically recognized by the U.S. Instead of apologizing for overthrowing Iran’s peaceful democratic movement in the early 1950s, supporting a right-wing police state under the Shah, and helping Saddam Hussein make war against Iran for eight indescribably bloody years, Washington dishonors the Islamic Republic by pretending it does not merit the near-automatic granting of diplomatic recognition that goes to any regime capable of enforcing its will over its territory.

Interests. Iran has an “interest” in self-defense, so a Washington hoping to be taken as sincere should distinguish between, say, Russian ground-to-air self-defense missiles and Iranian future possession of nuclear bombs. Iran has an “interest” in the removal of extremely powerful foreign armies from the states on its borders, so Washington should be discussing and offering to coordinate the process of its military withdrawal from the region with Tehran. Tehran has an “interest” in participating normally in international trade, so Washington should make crystal clear that the immediate termination of all sanctions is “on the table,” and solely at the price of total nuclear transparency. Tehran has an “interest” in playing a role in regional affairs commensurate with its capabilities, and Washington should also make it crystal clear that all the noise about Iran’s nuclear potential is in no way an excuse to re-colonize Iran or change its regime.

Fear. Honor. Interests. Now make policy.