Iran won’t back down easily

February 24, 2012


— “We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last Sunday on CNN. That sounds right to me, but his comment raises a tricky question: How much pressure will it take to get this “rational” country to curb its nuclear program?

The answer here isn’t comforting: Recent history shows that the Iranian regime will change behavior only if confronted with overwhelming force and the prospect of an unwinnable war. Short of that, the Iranians seem ready to cruise along on the brink, expecting that the other side will steer away.

I count two clear instances when Iran has backed down, and two more “maybes.” These examples remind us that the Iranian leaders aren’t irrational madmen — and also that they drive a hard bargain. Here are the two documented retreats:

l Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in July 1988 “drank the cup of poison,” as he put it, and agreed to end the Iraq-Iran war. He accepted a U.N.-sponsored truce, but only after eight years of brutal fighting, Iraqi rocket attacks on Iranian cities, and the use of poison gas against Iranian troops. Khomeini’s decision followed the shoot-down of an Iranian civilian airliner on July 3 by the USS Vincennes — unintended, but a demonstration of overwhelming American firepower in the Persian Gulf.

l Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 because of “international pressure,” according to a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The decision came after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Iranians apparently feared was the prelude to an attack on their soil. The Iranians also agreed in 2003 to start talks with European nations on limiting their enrichment of uranium — beginning the haggling that continues to this day.

Two other examples are less obvious, but they illustrate the same theme of rational Iranian response to pressure. In both cases the trigger was a strong back-channel message from the United States:

l In March 2008, Iran restrained its Shiite allies in Iraq after a U.S. warning about shelling the Green Zone. The Mahdi Army had been firing heavy rockets and mortars into the enclave, causing rising U.S. casualties. Gen. David Petraeus, then U.S. commander in Baghdad, sent a message — “Stop shooting at the Green Zone” — to Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force. The intermediary was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who had close relations with both generals. The shelling tapered off.  

l Last month, Iran toned down its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz after a U.S. back-channel warning that any such action would trigger a punishing U.S. response. The private message paralleled a public U.S. statement: “The United States and the international community have a strong interest in the free flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in all international waterways.” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi subsequently offered reassurance: “Iran has never in its history tried to prevent, to put any obstacles in the way of this important maritime route.”

The Iranians’ behavior in negotiations, too, has seemed to wax and wane based on their perception of the West’s seriousness. When Russia and China supported U.N. sanctions in 2010, the Iranians got nervous. When India and China reduced oil purchases recently, Tehran took notice.

Clear messaging to Iran — and to Israel, too — is important as the tension mounts over a possible Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear targets. The most direct public message yet came from Dempsey in his appearance on Fareed Zakaria’s show, “GPS.” It’s worth looking carefully at just what the nation’s top military officer said.

“The Iranian regime has not decided that they will embark on the effort to weaponize their nuclear capability,” Dempsey said, thereby offering Tehran a chance to save face in any deal. He argued that because Iran isn’t yet building a weapon, it would be “premature” and “not prudent” for Israel to attack. “A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives,” he cautioned. But he conceded that the U.S. hasn’t yet persuaded Israel to hold off.

The signal to Israel is very clear: Don’t attack! But what about the message to Iran? History shows that the clerics in Tehran won’t accept a deal unless they conclude there’s no alternative but a punishing war. Somehow, the U.S. must convince Iran this confrontation is deadly serious — and then work to find the rational pathway toward agreement.

<em>— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.</em>


FalseHopeNoChange 2 years, 1 month ago

For what it's worth.

Let's be honest, quite a few Americans love a good war, especially those Americans who have never had to bear witness to one first hand. War is the ultimate tribally vicarious experience. Anyone, even pudgy armchair generals with deep-seated feelings of personal inadequacy, can revel in the victories and actions of armies a half a world away as if they themselves stood on the front lines risking possible annihilation at the hands of dastardly cartoon-land "evil doers." They may have never done a single worthwhile thing in their lives, but at least they can bask in the perceived glory of their country's military might.


cato_the_elder 2 years, 1 month ago

Headline: "Iran won’t back down easily."

As long as Obama remains president, you can take that to the bank.


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 1 month ago

This article begins with this: “We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last Sunday on CNN.

With that statement, Gen. Dempsey made it clear that he was stating an opinion, and not a fact. And since he used the plural, that opinion must be shared by others also.

It is always very difficult to tell exactly what the leadership's thoughts are in a society that is not particularly open to foreign scrutiny. And of course, it is impossible to tell if their public statements are indicative of intent, or if they are meant only for political purposes at home.

This link contains an official one half hour long video that the Iranian leadership has released to the population of Iran, and it does not sound good:

If you watch and read the subtitles of the whole video, you will see that the leadership of Iran has announced what we would think of as terrible news for us to their population.

This article is not particularly long, and it seems to have been written in at least a somewhat scholarly way, but it's partly opinion:

So I think the Western nations need to be prepared for anything, because the Iranian leadership might actually be serious about doing what they say they are going to do.

"There is a homely old adage which runs: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." If the American nation will speak softly, and yet build and keep at a pitch of the highest training a thoroughly efficient navy, the Monroe Doctrine will go far." - President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1903

I think that President Theodore Roosevelt gave our nation some very good advice, and it is still very good advice over one hundred years later.


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