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Opinion

Opinion

U.S.-Iran communication confirmed

January 23, 2012

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— The Iran nuclear crisis is far from over, but Tehran appears to have made a subtle blink — backing away from its threat a few weeks ago to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to escalating U.S. sanctions.

The softening of Iran’s position followed a warning by a U.S. emissary this month that any effort to close the strait would trigger a potentially devastating U.S. response. Clearly, Tehran got the message — with a top Iranian official Thursday publicly disavowing the earlier saber-rattling.

“Iran has never in its history tried to prevent, to put any obstacles in the way of this important maritime route,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi insisted in a television interview during a visit to Turkey.

But in a sign Iran is pressing its broader nuclear program, Salehi warned nations not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by allying with the U.S.

What started the jitters was a bellicose statement in late December by Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi that Iran would close the strait if the West imposed new sanctions on Iranian oil. On Jan. 3, a senior Iranian admiral said his country’s navy had practiced closing the strait; he warned that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which recently departed the Gulf, should not return. But U.S. intelligence quickly picked up signs that some Iranian leaders were unhappy with the blustering comments.

The foreign minister’s statements, taken with other developments, suggest that war fever over a quick confrontation at the Strait is ebbing. There’s no progress yet on the core issue of Iran’s nuclear program, but the U.S. has clarified its “red lines” in the crisis, and Iran has indicated by its public response that it understands.

Another step back from the brink was Wednesday’s statement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that any Israeli attack on Iran was “very far off.” Barak was expressing the consensus of the Israeli national-security establishment.

The American back channel to Iran is an intriguing new factor. U.S. officials wouldn’t disclose the identity of the emissary, but they said the person delivered an oral briefing that included both the warning on the strait and the reiteration of U.S. interest in serious negotiations.

The private message is said to have been similar to a public version offered by White House spokesman Tommy Vietor: “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. ... Since taking office, the president has made it clear that he is willing to engage constructively and seriously with Iran about its nuclear program.”

Explaining Iranian behavior is always a puzzle. But it’s possible that their recent statements — both hawkish and dovish — are responses to economic sanctions that are beginning to have a serious impact. I wrote last week about how Iran’s biggest customers — including China and India — are beginning to reduce their oil purchases from Iran, and looking to Saudi Arabia to make up the difference.

This oil-market squeeze has begun to produce a financial run at home, as Iranians scramble for dollars that (because of a deliberate U.S. policy) are in short supply. According to The New York Times, the Iranian currency fell to its lowest level ever against the dollar on Wednesday. The black market rate has fallen more than 50 percent in the last month, to 18,000 rials to the dollar compared to 11,000 to 12,000 in December.

Putting these elements together, one intelligence official who closely follows Iran explained: “Iran is deterred now from crossing the Rubicon and developing nuclear weapons.” This official says Iran wants to obtain all the necessary components of a nuclear weapon — but wait to cross the threshold until the moment is right.

What the Obama administration wants are verifiable safeguards that, while allowing Iran to have a civilian nuclear program, prevent any breakout to weaponization. President Obama summed up his goal in an interview with Time’s Fareed Zakaria: “The Iranians have a very clear path where they say, we’re not going to produce weapons, we won’t stockpile material that can be used for weapons. The international community then says, we will work with you to develop your peaceful nuclear energy capacity, subject to the kinds of inspections that other countries have agreed to in the past.”

This confrontation still has a long way to run, with significant dangers on all sides. But last week’s exchanges made clear, at least, that urgent messages are being sent and received between Washington and Tehran.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

Comments

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

Iran has absolutely no interest in closing the Straits of Hormuz (it would hurt them as much as it would anyone else.) But in an asymmetrical world, a smallish country like Iran is going to use what weapons it has at its disposal, and for Iran it's its proximity to this bottleneck that a large percentage of the world's oil flows through.

It's going to take a lot to get them to actually follow through with this threat, but an attack by Israel (and/or the US) would likely be sufficient.

Let's hope all sides can move away from the brink of a conflict that could easily escalate into a full-scale regional war involving a dozen or more countries (in addition to the half dozen or so who are engaged in a more or less permanent state of low-to-high intensity war.)

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

"Iran has absolutely no interest in closing the Straits of Hormuz".
Then why say such a thing when history has repeatedly shown that countries routinely miscalculate the intentions of other countries. If some other country determined that keeping this international waterway open way vital to their interests, and then preemptively moved to prevent Iran from their stated intention of closing that waterway, would the fault lie with Iran or the attacker?
If nothing else, statements like that are irresponsible. They increase tensions and increase the possibility of military conflict. Rather than defend such comments, "but in an asymmetrical world, a smallish country like Iran is going to use what weapons it has at it's disposal", comments like Iran's should be condemned by all.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

In poker, someone wins and someone loses. And the players know they risk losing when they sit down and play the game.
Now if the U.S. or Israel were to preemptively attack, (Bozo mentions those two as likely countries to attack), then would we all simply say, "Oh, well, Iran played the game and lost". Or would we then be highly critical of the U.S. and Israel for having "won" the game.
I think not. If conflict happens, the usual suspects would defend Iran, even though as you state, they should have known the risk of losing when they started playing the game.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

"Now if the U.S. or Israel were to preemptively attack,"

The problem with "pre-emptive" attacks is that all too often they are merely a fig-leaves for naked aggression-- the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a very recent example.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

Sure, Iran should be criticized for lots of what it does and says. But they don't say it or do it in a vacuum. There are lots of other countries who make bellicose and incendiary statements. Why don't condemn all such behavior?

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

Bellicose and incendiary remarks should be condemned. I agree. Are you now withdrawing your comment above, the one that defended Iran's statement?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

Either your reading comprehension is suspect or you're intentionally trying to distort what I said.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

You compared Iran's threats to close the straits with weapons at it's disposal. How is that a distortion? Or more precisely, how is that not bellicose or incendiary?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

Recognizing a weapon for what it is is not the same thing as endorsing its use.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

So you're not justifying the statement Iran made, you're just recognizing that the threat was made? And you're recognizing that it is a legitimate threat, in an asymmetrical conflict? If, hypothetically speaking, there was another conflict that was asymmetrical in nature, say a country was surrounded by neighbors intent on it's destruction, countries with far greater resources, far greater numbers, far greater numbers of conventional weapons, wouldn't that justify the surrounded country in behaving in ways that might not be justified if were say just one country of equal size and resources vs. one other country, also with equal size and resources?

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

"Pre-emptive" moves are always suspect to me.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

A very comforting thought living in the very real safety of Lawrence, Ks. Now move your family to an area where very real people want to kill you and your family and you might feel otherwise. A Rabbi is speaking to a young student. He presents him with this problem. He says to the student, suppose you could go back in time, to the turn of the last century. You meet a young child by the name of Adolph Hitler. You have just a second with him, his mother is moving away quickly and you will never see this child again. Would you kill him if you had a gun? Of course, there is no correct answer to this riddle. Kill an innocent child or let him grow up to be a monster.
Preemptive strikes are bad. As is the alternative.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

Except that a "pre-emptive" move assumes one is correct about the intentions of the other, and that's frequently not true, as you yourself pointed out.

If I think you're going to beat me up, and I go beat you up first, I'm wrong to do so, am I not? Especially if you weren't going to do it after all.

The better approach would be to make sure I can defend myself if you do in fact attack me, when I'm acting in legitimate self-defense. And, not go out of my way to antagonize you.

Adolf Hitler (and those like him) are only problematic if/when they can get enough people to join them. The real (only) solution to them is for people to stop doing that.

If Hitler had been killed as a child. who's to say that somebody else much like him wouldn't have done exactly (or close enough) the same things that he did?

On the other hand, if he (or anybody) can't get followers, their power is neutralized.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

If I think someone is going to beat me up, may I beat him up first. Under U.S. law, the answer is yes, IF your fear is legitimate. Of course, that's subjective, hence, my statement about miscalculations.
The answer isn't yes or no, black or white. The answer is to not play the game. But if you do find yourself in that blind alley, with a gun in your pocket, with a group of tough looking young guys holding bats and blocking your exit, must you at all times wait until they strike the first blow? And if your young wife is holding your infant child standing beside you, does that change the equation?

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

I'm not at all sure that's true.

You'd have to "know" rather than "think", and I believe it only applies if you fear for your life, not just being beaten up.

Otherwise, I could come over to your house and beat you up, claiming I thought you were going to do the same to me.

Interestingly, from what I've seen, you're not permitted to escalate in self-defense, so if somebody comes at you with a bat, and you shoot them, you're actually in the wrong.

It's strange, and it doesn't fit very well with what most people might think, but it's the law.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

I'm not a lawyer, though I have every episode of Law and Order memorized. :-) That said, I think you are misinterpreting the law. You don't have to know someone is going to attack you before you act. Your belief only has to be reasonable. Of course, that's subjective and might have to be decided by 12 or your peers.
And I believe you are in error about the escalation of the use of force. Again, it must be reasonable. So if an unarmed man enters my home, I can only defend myself with my hands? No.
Or if someone comes at me using a weapon that might be deadly, such as a bat, I can defend myself using a weapon that might be deadly, a gun. (assuming the original threat of violence against me is reasonable, blind alley, outnumbered, not allowing me to leave, etc.).

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

I'm also not a lawyer, but I've seen small claims cases, and they don't support your interpretation.

Escalating in self-defense is not allowed - if somebody hits you, and you pull out a knife, you're wrong, and it's not considered self-defense any more.

Attacking you because I believe you may attack me is not self-defense by any stretch of the imagination, I would think.

Home invasions are different - I'm not sure why that is - for some reason you're allowed to use more force there.

You may be right about the bat/gun example, if they're both considered deadly weapons.

But, much as one might like to, if somebody hits you, you can't pull out a gun and shoot them "in self defense".

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

Again, I think you're wrong. If someone punches me, and I reasonably believe they are going to hit me again, and again, I can defend myself in any reasonable way. Now if they hit me and then turn tail and run, I can't shoot them in the back, because I'm no longer being threatened. But if having been hit and reasonably believe I'm about to be hit again, yes, I can escalate the use of force. If a knife is handy, I can use it. If I pick up a brick that is nearby, I can use that. If it's a gun, I can use that to defend myself. It must be reasonable. If a 90 year old grandmother smacks her 25 year old grandson, he probably can't reasonably pick up a brick. But if a 25 year old hits a 90 year old woman, she can shoot him. it's all about what's reasonable.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

Not according to the small claims cases I've seen.

In all of those involving a similar situation, the person who escalates has lost with a claim of "self-defense".

I didn't say I agreed with it, but it seems to be the way the law is written.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

"Reasonable" seems to be defined as the minimum force necessary to defend yourself.

In one of the cases I saw, there was a fight in a bar, and one of the people grabbed and broke a bottle - their claim of self-defense lost, and they had to pay for the other party's injuries.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

Apparently, it wasn't reasonable in a bar fight (between two equal combatants?) for one person to use a broken bottle (deadly weapon) as a weapon. As I said, it all boils down to what's reasonable and that might boil down to 12 of your peers. There are no absolutes, as I said. No black and white. No saying you can't strike first, it had better be reasonable. No saying you can't escalate, it had better be reasonable.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

Again, not according to the judge I've seen.

Escalating is not self-defense, according to him.

He said so very directly and clearly, with no equivocation.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

I can't respond to that particular situation. I don't know the facts. But suppose the person without the broken bottle (weapon) was cornered in that fight. Could they pull out a gun to defend themselves. The answer is yes and if a judge says that's wrong, he's misinterpreting the law. The person first escalating might not have been allowed, it being a fistfight between equal combatants. The second escalation would be justified. No black, no white.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

If I remember correctly, the other gal started the fight.

It would have clearly been self-defense, except that she grabbed a bottle - that's what made the difference.

I'd strongly suggest that you don't get into situations in which you get into physical confrontations, unless you make sure that your understanding of self-defense laws is correct.

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

A quick google search shows that "pre-emptive" self-defense by a nation violates international law.

And, an attack must be in fact imminent to qualify as self-defense if you hit them first, which means that simply thinking or believing you may attack me is not sufficient.

So, if I think you're going to beat me up, I can't come to your house and beat you to it, claiming self-defense.

If you're standing in front of me, and clearly about to attack me, it's a different story.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

Closing an international waterway is also considered an act of war. Our embargo of Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis was an act of war. The fact that no shots were fired (from the Soviet ships approaching or from the U.S. ships surrounding Cuba) didn't make it less an act of war.
And you use of the word imminent seems subjective to me. Bozo has frequently criticized Israel for firing the first shots in the 1967 war. Was Egyptian action imminent? I would argue that given the circumstances, it was very much imminent.
In this case, might imminent be defined as support for third parties that would carry out violence? If Iran moved ships to block the straight, as we did with Cuba, would that be imminent?
Or does a google search of international law really obligate any country?

jafs 2 years, 11 months ago

I thought we were discussing "pre-emptive" self defense.

To that end, that's what I found.

If some other country commits an act of war, then it's not "pre-emptive" if we respond, it's actual self-defense.

The imminent part I meant to apply in personal situations - I don't know about how it would apply to nations.

In some cases, it's clear, in others maybe less so, but that's the legal term I've read - if an attack is imminent, it's self defense if you hit them first to prevent it. Otherwise it's not.

Of course, international law doesn't seem to apply to America, at least recently. We can do whatever we like - it's just other countries that have to follow certain rules.

That's what you've said, anyway, in the past.

I think it's absurd, personally.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

By that logic, Palestinians were well justified in making pre-emptive strikes against a nascent Israel, weren't they?

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

To which incident are you referring? Your statement seems overly broad for me to respond to.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

"Your statement seems overly broad for me to respond to."

What goes around comes around.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

I assume that means you don't wish to provide a specific incident. That's fine.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 11 months ago

Its a little thing, but it's importance is not to be understated.

gudpoynt 2 years, 11 months ago

And just this morning, the EU pushed new sanctions, Iranian lawmaker reiterated the threat of closing the straight, and the fire is rekindled:

http://bit.ly/yuzlJk

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