The U.S.-Iran Dance

Photo of Chavez and AhmadinejadRelations between the United States and Iran have been much in the news of late.  In the latest hostile confrontation…  oh wait, a U.S. Coast Guard ship today rescued six Iranian sailors in the northern Persian Gulf when their small ship took on water. The U.S. military quoted the owner of the Iranian vessels as saying, “Without your help, we were dead. Thank you for all that you did for us.”

In last week’s hostilities, a U.S. destroyer rescued 13 Iranian sailors from 15 Somali pirates who had seized their small ship to use as a mother ship to hijack larger cargo ships.  “It is like you were sent by God,” said one of the Iranian sailors. The U.S. destroyer was part of an aircraft carrier group that had recently left the Persian Gulf and been told in no uncertain terms by Iran not to come back. (Iran’s threat to use force or close the Hormuz Straits if the carrier returns is pure bluster.)

During most of last year, the United States encouraged revolutionary movements in Arab countries unfriendly to Iran’s government, including the unseating of longstanding Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who had been a key counterweight to Iranian power in the region.

And U.S. forces spent much of the last decade removing from power Iran’s #1 enemy, Saddam Hussein in next-door Iraq, and installing an Iraqi democracy that empowers Iranian allies in the country (Iraq’s Shi’ite majority that shares religious ties with Iran and had been suppressed by Saddam).

It’s an odd way to treat enemies. Iran’s leaders might indeed quote the rescued sailor:  “Thank you for all that you did for us.”

Instead it’s the same old “death to America” out of Tehran. Enter the Persian Gulf and we will attack you. Iran also just handed down a death sentence against an Iranian-American accused of being a spy. It is unclear whether the authorities there intend to carry it out.

Now President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is taking a break from his domestic woes (hint: don’t pick fights with someone who has “Supreme” in his title) to visit supportive countries in Latin America. That would be, um, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. Nice little countries, with leftist and anti-American regimes. They are not the countries that matter most — Brazil, Mexico, Argentina. But there was Ahmadinejad yesterday having a laugh as  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez joked that a big atomic bomb was hidden right in front of the presidential palace. Take that, Yankee!

Iran’s building of a nuclear weapon has been described as a “red line” by the U.S. government. And thanks to more effective U.S. multilateral diplomacy, biting sanctions against Iranian oil exports are now being considered by some of Iran’s biggest customers, European countries. This is what set off the latest round of anti-American bombast from Iran. Iran is yelling because it’s hurting.

Fareed Zakaria wrote recently that “the real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter — Syria — is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington. Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry.”

In an international survey of public opinion last year, the country viewed most negatively by people in 27 countries was Iran (59% negative), followed by North Korea and Pakistan. These three countries all either possess nuclear weapons or have made substantial progress toward building one. Why Iran wants to be in this club is not exactly clear. (By the way, Canada was viewed most positively among the 27 countries.)

Now that Iran’s position is slipping and worse is soon to come (if the new European sanctions do take effect), will the Supreme Leader have a change of heart about nuclear weapons? Will he calculate that the cost to Iran on multiple dimension is too high for a weapon that could never be used?

President Obama famously made a diplomatic opening to Iran early in his term, which did not succeed. Iran expert Trita Parsi argues in his forthcoming book (A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran) that neither side showed adequate perseverance after initial setbacks. In the recent moves against Iran’s nuclear program, the West has focused on a change of Iran’s policy, not an effort to change the Iranian regime. Given that is the case, further diplomacy at this stage would be a good idea. But with Republican presidential candidates falling over each other to be toughest on Iran, President Obama has little room for conciliatory moves toward Iran.

It’s worth remembering that of the dozens of countries worldwide with the capability to make nuclear weapons, most have chosen to not do so. Nuclear weapons are super-dangerous, super-expensive, draw the world’s opposition, and have little to no usefulness in any real war. Why go there?

One Response to The U.S.-Iran Dance

  1. Re Parsi: interesting. I’ve been impressed with him when I’ve heard him commenting on, e.g., PBS.

    Re: “Nuclear weapons are super-dangerous, super-expensive, draw the world’s opposition, and have little to no usefulness in any real war. Why go there?”

    There is of course the argument that Iran’s leaders saw what happened to Qaddafi and drew the inference that if Qaddafi had not given up his WMD (actual or planned) he might still be in power. So the intervention of the NATO countries in Libya may have had the unintended consequence of strengthening Tehran’s resolve to develop a nuclear weapon. File under “unintended consequences, example number 19 zillion”.