November 1, 2011
Since the Obama Administration first announced its charges of Iranian government involvement in a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, a growing number of Western journalists and commentators have suggested that, whatever their merits, the allegations have upped the “pressure” on an increasingly fragile Iranian political order. Some hold that the purported Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador is itself an “act of desperation” by a country already reeling under tighter sanctions. Others assert that heightened pressure by the United States over the alleged plot has exacerbated tensions between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; still others claim it has sparked deepening “divisions” within the Iranian political class over how Tehran should respond. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gotten into the act, with her recent observations on Voice of America’s Farsi-language service that “we’re not quite sure who makes decisions anymore inside of Iran”. (Although she does seem quite sure that the Islamic Republic is becoming “a military dictatorship”.)
These perceptions are all treated as indications of Iranian vulnerability to what is described as the Obama Administration’s unprecedentedly tight squeeze on Tehran—encompassing intensified criticism of Iran’s human rights record and a regional balance of power that is shifting against the Islamic Republic because of the shakiness of Syria’s Assad government and Western “success” in Libya. For some analysts, this means that Washington can begin reaping a diplomatic harvest, including Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue and in Afghanistan. For others, the Obama Administration’s accusations of Iranian government complicity in the Saudi assassination plot mean that Washington has an opening to apply even greater, potentially fatal pressure on the Islamic Republic—including sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, an escalation of covert attacks on Iranian targets, and perhaps even military strikes.
But, as is so often the case in Western assessments of Iranian politics and foreign policy, these arguments are the product of wishful thinking rather than informed analysis. We have commented previously on the Western proclivity to see any kind of contestation over positions and policies in Tehran—the kinds of contestation that, in virtually any place else in the world, are routinely described as “politics”—as a sure indicator of systemic “crisis” in the Islamic Republic. And, from March 2011, we have argued that the Assad government was not at serious risk of being overthrown; see, for example, here, here, and here. (Now, even parts of the mainstream media are beginning to report that “Assad’s government is confident that it has weathered the worst of the turmoil sweeping Syria and will soon be able to overcome any remaining challenges to its survival” and that “Assad and his allies appear to be in no imminent danger of falling”.) More significantly, Iranian officials estimate that Assad is unlikely to lose his hold on power, something that even former Obama Administration adviser Vali Nasr recently acknowledged.
Furthermore, if one actually speaks with Iranian officials (something that the United States government, as a matter of policy, bars itself from doing)—or even Iranian analysts supportive of the Islamic Republic (which the mainstream media are reluctant to do)—what comes across is a strong sense that the Obama Administration’s recent accusations against the Islamic Republic are a manifestation of American desperation. In this regard, Tehran has now responded formally to a letter it received two weeks ago from the U.S. government regarding the purported Saudi assassination scheme. The response hardly suggests that Iran is feeling intimidated or eager for diplomatic relief from its current predicament. As an Iranian diplomatic source described it, the Iranian government calls on the United States to officially apologize for making baseless accusations against Iran—accusations which, the message states, are based on “dishonest” information. The source said that, in Tehran’s view, the United States has a responsibility to apologize both to the Iranian government and to the Iranian citizens it has accused; in its letter to the U.S. government, Iran reportedly calls on the United States to pay compensation for physical and psychological damages caused to these people.
The Iranian letter reportedly links the Obama Administration’s allegations of official Iranian complicity in the Saudi assassination plot to the George W. Bush Administration’s case for invading Iraq, which was also based on “dishonest” information. It stresses that the results of American “scenario-making” in Iraq are that, after killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and imposing thousands of billions of dollars of expenditures on the American people, the United States is now being forced to withdraw completely from Iraq, in helpless defeat.
This part of the Iranian message underscores that Tehran has ways to “push back” against what is sees as U.S. aggressiveness: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declined to let U.S. troops stay in Iraq—even though the Obama Administration wanted to retain perhaps as many as 20,000 troops there on an open-ended basis—not least because of the influence of the Sadrists and other political forces closely linked to Iran in his governing coalition. Moreover, this part of the message reflects an assessment that regional trends are, on balance, running very much in Iran’s favor and against the United States. And, as a rhetorical trope, linking the Obama Administration’s accusations against Iran to the Bush Administration’s accusations against Saddam Husayn is likely to play very well across the Middle East—even in the Arabian peninsula, where America’s eviction from Iraq has reinforced official concerns about Iran’s rising regional influence and steadily improving strategic position.
The Iranian response to the Obama Administration’s allegations also highlights a remarkable degree of continuity in the Islamic Republic’s national security strategy. In 1999, the Clinton Administration sent a message to then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Though ostensibly packaged and later spun publicly by the Clinton Administration as a diplomatic overture, the message concentrated on U.S. accusations of Iranian complicity in the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia—an attack which the Secretary of Defense at the time, William Perry says he believes was perpetrated by Al-Qa’ida, not Iran. Tehran’s response, now declassified, strongly denied the charges while reiterating Iran’s willingness to engage—if the United States dropped its preconditions and threatening behavior.
Just as in 1999, the Islamic Republic is prepared to deal diplomatically with the United States, on the nuclear issue and other matters. But it will not deal with an America that imposes preconditions and makes threats. Iran would stop enriching uranium at the near-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)—provided that it can acquire new fuel for the TRR on the same basis as other states. Tehran would reach a broader agreement with the United States and others about its nuclear activities—but the United States will have to accept the principle and reality of internationally-monitored uranium enrichment (at the 3-4 percent level required for normal reactor fuel) in Iran. Tehran is prepared to improve relations with Washington—but Washington will have to accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political entity with legitimate national interests.
These are things which no U.S. administration—not even the Obama Administration—has been willing to do. Until this changes, Iran will keep doing what it is doing, and no amount of American “pressure” will fundamentally alter its course. And, in the process, the Islamic Republic will continue making strategic gains across the region. Just look at what happened in Iraq.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett