Threat and accusations against Iran have been so common that for long-standing Iran observers like me it is a bit difficult to get all riled up over them. But even according to Iran standards, this has been an intense couple of weeks. The Petraeus/ Crocker show was full of references to the “unhelpful” and even “malign” role played by Iran in Iraq, and, presumably running out of other reasons that sound convincing, the need to contain Iran seems to have emerged as the major (and latest) reason for the continued American presence in Iraq. In the words of George Bush, “Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region.”
Stories abound too that the Bush administration is seriously considering military strikes against Iran; stories I might add that, according to the New York Times report by Helen Cooper, “the Bush administration officials have pointedly not tried to stem.” Even an Israeli air strike in Syria last week led to speculation that Israel, in alliance with the United States, was really trying to send a message to Iran that it could strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it chose to, leading George Perkovich of the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to say, “If I were the Iranians, what I’d be freaked out about is that the other Arab states didn’t protest. The Arab world non-reaction is a signal to Iran that Arabs aren’t happy with Iran’s power and influence, so if the Israelis want to go and intimidate and violate the airspace of another Arab state that’s an ally of Iran, the other Arab states aren’t going to do anything.”
Freaking out may be what George Perkovich and many others would like the Iranian leadership to be doing in the hope that the fear of a military attack will convince them to back down on the nuclear issue. But a reading of the Iranian press suggests anything but freaking out. In fact, I have found it quite interesting that various leaders in Iran have not only publicly reacted to what is going on in Washington swiftly but also, despite clear disagreements on a variety of other issues, rather calmly and in unison.
The gist of the message coming out of Iran is the following:
1. Iran is making serious efforts to resolve its issues with the international community and, more importantly, if it is allowed with the US.
2. Regarding the nuclear issue, this means an agreement to resolve the outstanding issues regarding Iran’s past activities and, upon their resolution through an IAEA-directed process, to maintain a sufficiently intrusive and IAEA-acceptable inspection regime allowing the IAEA to continue to verify that no nuclear material has been diverted to a weapons program.
3. Regarding Iraq, this means offer of help to improve the security situation, in addition to the continuous economic and political support Iran has given every government of Iraq since the American invasion. According to Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiatior, "Iran does not want a speedy withdrawal of the Amercian forces. They have to devise a time table with Nuri al-Maliki's government. No matter what Iraq is an occupied country and this is a heavy burden for the people of Iraq and the United States must figure out a way to resolve this issue and we are ready for any help."
4. But Iran is making these efforts, and sending all sorts of messages regarding the need to talk and reach a compromise on a variety of issues that concern both countries, understanding very well that the Bush administration may be in no mood for talks or compromise as it tries to find a scapegoat for its failures in the Middle East. Again, in the words of Ali Larijani, "Iran is an important county with which [the Americans] can have constructive interaction. In my view, because of the problems they are faced with in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Afghanistan, the Americans are suffering from strategic incoherence.”
5. The awareness of this “strategic incoherence” or perhaps worries about the actions of what the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani says may be a “wounded tiger,” has also meant that Iran is preparing itself for the possibility of direct military attacks by the United States. In the words of the new head of IRGC, Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, “The enemies have intensified the tune of threats but they should know that… Sepah, in addition to high capability in military dimensions, has informational superiority over the enemies and high missile capabilities which are of great defensive help… Asymmetrical warfare is a kind of war that we utilized during the sacred defense since during the imposed war there were great inequalities between us and the enemy. But the inequality was not to the extent that we can call the battles of sacred defense asymmetrical war. But since the material and technological capabilities of [the current] enemy is higher relative to us, we need to move in the direction of appropriate policies and defensive approaches, the example of which is asymmetrical war. An objective example of this type of war can be seen in the 33-day Lebanon war.”
In short, from the Iranian perspective the issue at hand seems to be how to capitalize on the American foreign policy disaster in Iraq in ways that would lead to the American acceptance of the Islamic Republic "as is" and also a a significant and worthy player in the region while simultaneously pursuing policies that would best neutralize the possibility of American attack and increased pressures against Iran.
Just to give a flavor of the Iranian mindset, this is what Ali Larijani said on September 6:
The current conditions are very sensitive. We have to assess these conditions correctly and know their point of focus. The current conditions are valued as much by us as the victory of the Americans for global management and unilateralism is valued by them.
Speaking to the Assembly of Experts, this is what Larijani said on September 4,
In the past two months both the framework for the resolution of issues with the Agency has been devised and, with the initiative of a European country, a preliminary plan for political understanding in the nuclear negotiations was prepared. Under these conditions Iran has shown its goodwill for the resolution of the nuclear issue and the realization of the commitment of the opposing party means paving the way for the natural progression of the dossier in the Agency. This message needs a hearing ear. If America wants a dialogue of the deaf, a non-hearing status is [something that] all can achieve.
It is noteworthy that references to “deaf/non-hearing” or “irrational” Americans are now commonly used by Iranian officials. On August 31st, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said,
Their behavior has become childish. They are unable to solve any of the problems of the Middle East because the have a wrong point of view. Wait for a few months and under pressure the government of Iraq will also face failure. I guess then they will say that we want to dismiss the people of Iraq! Anyone who wants to give them advice, [is seen] as wanting to push them further into quagmire. I am surprised why they do not understand….. Is there no reason in their government? Are their advisors self-interested or ignorant?
On September 9, Larijani gives further clues about the extent to which Tehran feels it has extended its hand in trying to find a resolution to the problem:
Iran has taken a positive step based on good will. …The nuclear discussion regarding Iran over which they maneuvered a lot was that Iran had problems in the past which it did not clarify and secondly that the speed with which Iran was pursuing enrichment did not allow for inspections. [With the new understanding with Solana] we have resolved both of these problems… I previously told Solana and ElBaradei that we will take a positive step and in return you have to clarify the atmosphere. It is not supposed to be [a situation in which] one smiles and the other frowns… This is a test for us. We have taken an important step and if the behavior of the other side is not appropriate we will behave in a different way.
Then, regarding the possibility of a third sanctions resolution and military action, Larijani goes on to say,
Rationally we have to take into account all possibilities…..If the Americans welcome military confrontation then this will be the last nail on the coffin of neoconservatives. This is not a region from which they can reap attractive takeaways… [Increased military threats] are nothing new and in the past few years they have their highs and lows. The situation in Iraq has shaped conditions for them in such a way they are forced to talk this way in order to save face. These dreadful roars are more like a flight trumpet than a call for action. We cannot prevent anyone from speaking. We do not consider such an action rational but if they did it we will give commensurate response. Their act will be harmful for the whole region.
The message that the current Iranian leadership seems to be giving the United States is that, having tried and failed to use other countries as buffer to resolve the nuclear issue and counter the American antagonism towards the existence of the Islamic republic, they are now using the direct and I think a much riskier strategy of looking “eye to eye.”
By attempting to decouple the issue of enrichment and outstanding issues and agreeing to work on the latter with the IAEA, Iran is also signaling that it is able and willing to devise strategies intended to limit the damage the United States can cause.
Ironically, the case for what I think should be considered a “moderated” hard-line position was best made on September 7th by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now the head of both Expediency Council and Council of Experts and a man who is perhaps the best symbol of Islamic Iran’s determination to survive and thrive under the most difficult of circumstances: I say ironically because Hashemi Rafsanjani is often described as the leader of the moderate/pragmatic wing of Iran’s foreign policy establishment:
The nuclear issue is still a very important issue. This oppressive dossier through which resolutions have been issued at the Agency and Security Council against the aggrieved Iran is still very important… Recently the Agency – of course if it really has good will – has begun an appropriate move … of course even in this act it is not yet clear what they are after. It is not acceptable by the United States, France, and many other Western country and they say ElBaradei should not have done this and we should go the route of Security Council. I tell them, do not repeat your mistakes so much. …Learn from the acts you committed in the world after September 11…They invaded a few countries in the name of the idea of axis of evil and in the name of terrorism….and in their minds surrounded Iran. Of course it became clear that they are not capable of taking care of countries such as Afghanistan and began to rely on NATO, of course giving a bad name to NATO too… The plan for the Greater Middle East has failed. The besieging of Iran has had the opposite result and today the United States is besieged, asking help from us… From this tribune I warn those sitting in the White House and members of Congress and tell them to let go of in your heads this way of confronting Islam, Muslims and Islamic revolutionary forces. If there is a way, it is only the path of talks which God willing is still open. Of course we ourselves should also give attention and when we are faced with a wounded tiger we have to be vigilant and face this big issue of the region and the world with reason, vigilance, and poise.
Hashemi Rafsanjani’s words, given on the occasion of his election as the head of the Assembly of Experts, seems to be a signal that the Iranian leadership has mustered the political will to offer yet another compromise; a compromise that can be build on what Iran considers to be certain shared regional interests with the United States but must allow Iran to come out of the confrontation with the US in ways that are acceptable within the broad outlines of Iran’s contentious politics.
But, watching its messages and hints go “unheard” by the “deaf,” the Iranian leadership is rational enough to realize that those terms may not be acceptable to the Bush administration; hence the Iranian messages that preparation have been under way for the kind of fight it feels it might have to fight but certainly prefers not to.