Keeping Iran from Saying Yes

The current U.S.-Iran confrontation has the look of inevitably leading to war, much like the one-way ratcheting of pressure on Iraq a decade ago. Whatever concessions Iran is likely to make are almost certain not to satisfy the West, as ex-CIA official Paul R. Pillar writes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Imagine that you are a senior adviser to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and have decided that sanctions and other pressures on Iran have accomplished exactly what they ostensibly are designed to do (to the extent that any such presumed purpose of the pressure can be discerned from what is coming out of Washington): to change minds among policy makers in Tehran about Iran’s nuclear activities.

You, the adviser, have concluded that the pressures are sufficiently damaging to Iranian interests that Iran ought to make whatever policy changes are needed to get the pressure to stop. What, exactly, do you advise your boss to do?

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

As you contemplate that question, you realize there are several conditions that would have to be met in order for any advice you gave not to be rejected immediately and categorically, if not by the supreme leader himself then by others in the regime who have a say in shaping policy.

Whatever step you recommend would have to be politically feasible, which also means being psychologically feasible for the leader, for other Iranian policy makers and for the Iranian public. There also would have to be some mechanism for reaching an understanding or agreement with the Americans, given that ending the U.S.-led pressure would be the whole purpose of changing policy.

Closely related to that last requirement, you would also need to point to good reason to believe that if Tehran did change policy, the United States would indeed end the pressure. After carefully reflecting on all this, you would have to decide that — as long as the policies and discourse you hear coming from the United States remain as they are — the requirements cannot be met.

The United States has made it almost impossible for Iran to say yes to whatever it is the United States is supposedly demanding of Iran. You quietly drop the idea of recommending to the supreme leader any change of policy.

One can, to be sure, imagine an Iranian statement that would sufficiently get U.S. attention that it would affect U.S. policies. Ayatollah Khamenei could go on television and say, “The pressure is too great. We need to change our ways. The centrifuges have been turned off, and we have begun dismantling them. We will take whatever other steps are needed to make the pressure stop.”

Anything even remotely resembling such a “cry uncle” speech is out of the question. Even in the extremely unlikely event that the supreme leader ever considered doing anything like that, imagine what the response would be from the Iranian equivalents of Republican presidential candidates.

There would screams of “appeasement” and outcries against “apologizing” to the Americans that would be loud enough to shake the foundations of the regime — which is part of the reason no such speech will be made. Or if you can’t imagine that, imagine how a similar issue would play here if it were the United States that was being pressured by a foreign power.

A peaceful Iranian nuclear program — as Tehran contends that its program is — has broad and strong support among Iranians. Any feasible change in Iranian policies that could be the basis of a new understanding with the United States and the West would include a continuing Iranian nuclear program, very likely including the enrichment of uranium by Iran.

The substance of any such understanding would involve technical details about inspections and safeguards. Such details would need to be negotiated. Feasible arrangements that would provide the minimum assurances to both sides could be negotiated, but they are unexplored. They remain unexplored because the United States has abandoned negotiations and has made its policy toward Iran solely one of pressure and sanctions.

Conceivably Iran could do some things unilaterally that might be interpreted as the sort of policy changes that the pressure ostensibly is designed to achieve. But if the recent past is any guide, Iranian decision makers would have no basis for believing that any such changes would register with the United States and be sufficiently accepted and favorably interpreted to lead to any easing of sanctions.

Even when the U.S. intelligence community assessed that Iranian work on the design of nuclear devices had ceased, this only served to touch off a firestorm of controversy and accusations about political agendas.

The United States has given Iranians every reason to believe that it is committed to nothing other than pressure and more pressure, regardless of what modifications Iran may make in its programs. Any Iranian adviser who suggested otherwise would be shouted down by his colleagues in Tehran.

There is sadly no prospect for this dynamic to change any time soon, with a U.S. political environment in which, as Ted Galen Carpenter aptly describes, diplomacy with anyone we don’t happen to like is disparaged as appeasement.

The House of Representatives has even passed legislation (which awaits action in the Senate in the new year) that — in one of the most astoundingly self-crippling moves a house of Congress has ever made — would prohibit any official contact with Iranians in the absence of a cumbersome presidential waiver procedure.

We seem to have lost sight of what all those sanctions and pressure were supposed to achieve in the first place. They have come to be treated as if they were ends in themselves. That myopia, combined with reactive pigheadedness on the part of the Iranians, has produced a destructive spiral. As Trita Parsi observes:

“Such is the logic of pressure politics – pressure begets pressure and along the way, both sides increasingly lose sight of their original endgames. As this conflict-dynamic takes over, the psychological cost of restraint rises, while further escalatory steps appear increasingly logical and justified. At some point – and we may already be there – the governments will no longer control the dynamics. Rather, the conflict dynamic will control the governments.”

Some in this country — including some who have been most responsible for stoking the atmosphere just described — probably do not want sanctions to work. They instead see them as a necessary preliminary to the war that they really want. They may get their way, even without a deliberate decision in either Washington or Tehran to start a war.

In response to the most recent escalation of sanctions, which threatens to have material effects on Iranian oil exports (if they don’t just have the counterproductive effect of raising the price of oil and boosting Iranian revenues), we hear, unsurprisingly, threatening Iranian talk about closing the Strait of Hormuz to all exports.

The situation is ripe for the kind of incident that can rapidly escalate out of control and become a highly destructive conflagration.

This is a tragedy in the making. It is being made largely because too many people in this country have lost sight both of U.S. interests and of the fundamental bargaining principle that if we want to solve a problem that involves someone else with whom we have differences, we should make it easier, not harder, for the other side to say yes.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared in The National Interest.)

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18 comments on “Keeping Iran from Saying Yes

  1. And where does Russia stand on the Iranian situation. Last I heard they were allies and Russia helped Iran with its nuclear program. Has there been any word on what Russia would do if a war broke out?

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Fox News Alert Just In: “Santorum floated an aggressive strategy for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. He said he would order air strikes if the country does not open up its facilities, and he declared Iranian nuclear scientists should be treated like an “enemy combatant,” similar to an “Al Qaeda member.”"

      It seems the staunch defender of nuclear non-proliferation doesn’t realize that Israel is the country in the Middle East who has never permitted weapons inspections. Oops! Another Republican geopolitical illiterate bites the dust. But to answer the question about Russia, it is widely conjectured that there are Russian advisors assigned to Iranian nuclear facilities. They would likely be killed in an attack such as proposed by Santorum. Since preemptive war (war of aggression) violates international law, Russia would have a clear ‘cassus belli’ to justify military response.

      • Ernesto Migoya on said:

        Who can stop this madness? God help us if Obama gives in to Israel and the crazy neo cons in the name of getting the Jewish and other conservative votes.

        When will it stop? When the USA is completely bankrupt or when Russia or China drop a nuke on NY or LA and millions are killed?

  2. rosemerry on said:

    A war will not “break out”. If the USA is irresponsible and stupid enough to continue this charade to obey the paranoid ally, Israel, Iran has the right and duty to defend itself. The latest war action of the USA is the Congress support by 410 to 11 of the dangerous and counterproductive “Iran Threat Reduction Act”. Never considered are talks,negotiations, considering the USA’s real interests,treating Iran with respect,or even using influence on Israel, the real nuclear danger.

  3. John Puma on said:

    The sanctions and pressure ARE achieving what they “were supposed to achieve in the first place”: war with Iran.

    To suggest otherwise is simple folly, at best.

    • I HOPE THAT IF THIS WAR HAPPENS “THEY SEND YOU TO WAR “YOU S.O.B.

      • Cool_Handuke on said:

        You didn’t understand John Puma’s post. He was not trying to promote war. It was just a summary of the original article.

        But you have a good idea there. All the war promoters should be in the front lines, so they can be the first to die for their country, like the good patriots they pretend to be, instead of the chicken hawks everyone knows they are. It would be even better if these chicken hawks put on bright orange suits so everyone can see them in the front lines, to remove allll doubt about their bravery. Hell, these chicken hawks don’t even need to carry any weapons because just seeing them in their bright orange suits will encourage everyone else. It’s optional whether they all hold hands, or not, just as long as they are in the front lines for a first-hand experience of the devastation they are so eager to promote.

  4. Kenny Fowler on said:

    If there was a Republican in the White House right now the war would have started by now. The latest anti-Iran propaganda blitz in the media seems to be in response to the ending of the Iraq occupation. The Neocons and the Israeli’s are worried that the attack on Iran they have been hoping for all these years might just fizzle out. War fever in the U.S has largely subsided among the people. It won’t be so easy this time to stir it up with lies and fear mongering.

    • KENNY, HOPE YOU ARE RIGHT THE ZIONIST JEWS ARE TRASH…….. NEOCON ARE SH.. THE WORLD WILL REACT THIS TIME AGAINST THE JEWS & THEIR SUPPORTERS ISRAEL IS THE PROBLEM IN THIS WORLD……GET RID OF THEM F…..

      • F.Y you antisemetic bastard

        • boomer on said:

          Jews are not the only semitic people. Arabs are semites. In biblical times the Persians were friendly to the Jews.

      • contempted on said:

        Its not Anti-semitism to correctly identify the problem.Jews are so powerful that they have successfully bought the American church lock stock and barrel.Imagine, how did the American church especially in the south with its long association with anti semitism suddenly turn so in favor of Israel that it is more than willing to risk World War for Israels defense? These Jews somehow, someway, have bought off the entire republican and democratic parties AND the American Church(Not that there is one, but the majority of evangelical churches).

  5. Al Alvarez on said:

    I can’t help but wonder – Daniel SunSouang, are you always this nice and careful about how you feel? Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the NeoCons have been, and still are, a serious threat to our nation. I also agree that Israel is a major problem in that part of the world; reminding me of a spoil kid whose parents (US)continually denies their wrong-doing. But to use the terms you use, you automatically file an entire group of people together….that is not accurate. Israel, who I believe needs a rude awakening from America, is experiencing their own anti-war and anti-Netanyahou turmoil. I will fight against another war. As far as I am concerned it is all about oil – don’t care what the politicians say.

  6. rayriaz on said:

    Iran`s problem with U.S.or Israel is not about nuclear Issue. The reality is about Iran`s Influence Speading in Middle East,where Israel is regional superpower.Because of Iran`s influence orbeting Iraq,Lebanon,Syria,Yeman, Behrain(where U.S.central command is located and Shia uprising on) Northern Afghanistan where Shia population in majority,Saudia Arabia`s shia population as well as Dubai,Qatar.

  7. This time, to initiate the war and to fight it would not be that easy: Internationally Americans are politically in a weaker position, there is no ‘Pearl Harbor-like event’ to justify war, American and European economies are in tatters, public awareness is better (I hope) as to who is benefiting from all this, enemy is a theocratic country which is united without any fault lines such as Shi’ite/sunny divide which can be exploited, who are committed to preserve their system and will fight till end as doing so and being killed will ‘guarantee their soldiers a place in paradise’, their belief in their ‘Allah’ is stronger than American warmongers’ belief in Capitalism. No one in his/her right mind would dare to go against all above odds and start a war. But then… right mindedness is the precondition!!

  8. Pingback: Iran reports nuclear progress as sanctions loom – Reuters | Politics News Report

  9. The drive of the anti-Iranian opinion dominators in our global hegemond is so powerful in the mass media and national politics that we cannot yet speak of any significant opposition that could have much influence to restrain the war hawks.
    Unlike China and Russia,the citizens of our our nation have never experianced the horrors of a massive holocost in their own homeland. Hence, they promote war without an interest in imagining the consequences of a nuclear war in the Middle East.

    Our anti-war citizens are not taken seriously because the authoritarian structures of our seemingly democratic “evangelical” theocracy have succeded in discouraging those who might promote wise cautiosness in the face of a potentially out-of-control escalation of the American-Israeli vs. Iranian holy war.
    The only hope that we have is the power of un-copted internet journalism and and protectively analytical education for anti-imperialist policies.

    Those who believe in the myth of massive military deterrence as our safety-umbrella from nuclear wars might be more alarmed if they read “How the End Begins,” by Ron Rosenbaum.

    Preventing nuclear war should be, By Far, our top priority, and the further triumph of currently reckless bully foreign policies our must be our greatest nightmare.