Keeping All Options on the Table: A Roadmap to Negotiation or War?

In the light of the passing of the late February deadline imposed by the UN Security Council Resolution 1737 and Iran’s refusal to comply, Washington is abuzz with wildly diverse plans regarding how to deal with Iran. Just days after the deadline, on February 24, Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated the Bush administration’s long standing position that “all options are on the table” if Tehran does not suspend uranium enrichment activities. On the other side of the spectrum, the announcement that the U.S. will attend the regional security conference held in Baghdad on March 10th and is open to talks with the representatives of Iran who will also be attending has highlighted the possibility of direct negotiations between the two countries

Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s point man for dealing with Iran, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, insisting that a military conflict is neither “desirable” nor “inevitable,” has been publicly and confidently describing a complex strategy intent on creating a “diplomatic pincer moment–a diplomatic construct that would drive the Iranians to the negotiating table” under the terms or preconditions defined by the United States.

The feverish diplomatic effort to maintain a unified international stance against Iran’s enrichment program, while at the same time fanning rumors about possible military action, continues to fuel pressure on Iran at the Security Council level. On the side, it has also led to financial restrictions by the U.S. as well as several Europeans banks, threats against Tehran’s alleged meddling in Iraq, incarceration of Iranian officials in Iraq, dispatching of two aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, public calling of a strengthened U.S.-Arab coalition against Iran, all in the hope of keeping the Iranian regime off balance and guessing about U.S. intentions and capabilities.

While this multi-faceted offensive looks quite clever, it is more a reflection of competing views that exists within the Bush administration–between those who want to push for regime change and those who consider the more incremental, evolutionary process of behavioral change as more realistic and less dangerous

More significantly, if the objective of U.S. policy is to force a weakened negotiating hand on Iran rather than a direct military confrontation, it is based on a serious misreading of contemporary politics in Iran and miscalculation regarding the unity with which all significant players in Iran will react in response to perceived efforts to weaken the regime.

Undersecretary Burns has stated he believes that the intense pressure is having an impact and will eventually nudge Iran to abandon its long-standing policies towards nuclear enrichment and the Middle East region as a whole. In making its move the Bush administration seems to be drawing from the memory of events in 1988 that culminated in a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq.

In that year, the United States sank a significant portion of Iran’s Navy, attacked an Iranian commercial Airbus, and gave Iraq intelligence that led to the destruction of two Iranian divisions with the help of chemical weapons. The reaction of war-wearied Ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader of Iran, was to “drink from the poison cup” and accept a ceasefire with Iraq after recently revealed debates within the Iranian government about the dire state of the Iranian economy and the difficulties encountered in war-time recruitment. The Bush administration seems to have taken to heart the joke the Iranians often make about themselves that “Iranians do not respond to pressure unless it is lots of pressure.”

In addition, realizing the Iranian public’s broad support for their government’s nuclear program and worried about further inflaming Iranian nationalism in case of a direct military attack, the U.S. strategy seems to have shifted to a policy of frightening the Iranian people of the consequences of the Iranian government’s nuclear efforts. This “psychological war” does not necessarily preclude an actual war or attack but the thinking is that a militarily frightened and economically worried Iranian public or elite may pressure the hard-line government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and ultimately the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whose assent is necessary in foreign policy matters, to recognize Iran’s fundamental weaknesses and the American strengths.

And even if this did not happen and a military confrontation eventually occurs, the economic and political pressures imposed, like the economic pressures imposed, like those pursued during the 1953 American coup in Iran, are hoped to exacerbate the already fractious political environment inside Iran and subdue the Iranian public’s nationalism and reaction.

The strategy is both flawed and dangerous because it does not take into account the important political changes that have taken place in Iran and the world since the end of Iran-Iraq War in 1988. It also misses the possibility that the Iranians are also playing an “all options on the table” game of their own. It is true that the Iranian leadership, like every other leadership, may not change course unless there is “lots” of pressure. But the change of course taken under intense pressure may not necessarily be what the U.S. hopes, unless provocation and war is really what the U.S. is seeking in its new policy.

Contemporary Iran is very different from both 1953 and 1988. To be sure, Iran’s political environment continues to be highly contentious and fractured. But this contentious political environment is a source of strength rather than weakness, allowing for wide range of input in the decision making process. This is why the potential for enhanced economic and political pressure on Iran has intensified already existing internal debates about the unyielding rhetorical stance President Ahmadinejad has taken and his economic mismanagement and inflationary policies during difficult times. Recent debates show that for a broad spectrum of significant players and forces in Iran, the appeal of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue rests on the desire for improved economic conditions.

But this desire can only be sustained if the Iranian leadership thinks that negotiations and compromise on the nuclear issue will indeed lead to a breakthrough in relations with the United States and on the abandoning of its policy of weakening the Iranian regime. Without such an incentive, the hardliners in Iran will be able to run the show based on the argument that no matter how many concessions are given, American hostility will not end. Slower economic growth is the price the Iranian hardliners, and ultimately other significant players as well, are willing to pay in exchange for domestic control especially since economic and financial sanctions that exclude oil trade cannot bring the Iranian economy to a halt.

Hardliners are able to win the domestic debate on this issue so long as the U.S. remains insistent on negotiations with preconditions. Nothing short of a “patron-client” relationship will satisfy the U.S. administration, they argue. Given the Administration’s insistence on preconditions that they know none of the players in Iran can and will accept, those in favor of improved relations with the U.S. can do little to undermine the argument made by the hardliners.

The opponents of Ahmadinejad’s hard-line policies and rhetoric, such as former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, can and have invoked Iran’s international predicament to fortify their criticism of a political foe. At the same time, they have shown no hesitation at all closing ranks behind the hard-line position if they perceive the Islamic Republic or its vital interests to be at stake.

Ultimately, while there is quite a bit of disagreement and public debate in Iran about how to fend off American hostility, there is no evidence of a real rift within the regime on policy toward Iraq, on the right to domestic enrichment or on the aspiration to play a broader regional role. As such, the inflexible stance taken by the Bush administration on the enrichment issue, which precludes a concession, even a symbolic one, in return for enrichment suspension, will have little success in altering Iran’s underlying stance. It is seen as yet another example of the attempt to weaken the Iranian regime and not as meaningful incentive to compromise or a realistic path toward improved relations.

This is while on issues critical to U.S. interests and regional stability, Tehran continues to hold strong cards; the least of which is the ability to just continue what it has been doing for nearly three decades, carry on while limping economically but carry on unless it is attacked through a land invasion. If the Bush administration’s charges against Iran are taken seriously, the Iranian hard-line leadership can also up the ante in Iraq, increasing the likelihood of retaliation by Iran, whether directly or through its allies. Such a policy will surely harm Iran, but will do the same to U.S. interests and further inflame the whole region.

Of course, there is the greater danger of direct military confrontation. Most U.S. officials, Dick Cheney excepted, maintain that they have no intention of provoking one. Rather, in the face of Iranian overconfidence, they argue, the U.S. is building strength in anticipation of a negotiation. But, in the absence of real diplomatic engagement, and with both sides playing an open-ended game, the effort to weaken the Iranian hand will be exceedingly difficult to calibrate or control. The risks of accidental war are real and frightening unless the recent announcements regarding the possibility of negotiations with Iran represent a turn around reflective of a genuine desire to avert direct confrontation and further inflaming of an already destabilized region.

Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawai