War Stories

Calling Iran’s Bluff

A history lesson for the Bush administration.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Are the Iranians looking for a face-saving way out of their nuclear confrontation with the United States? If I had to bet, I’d guess they’re not—that their occasional diplomatic ventures are ploys to divide the West and delay U.N. sanctions so they can amble along their merry way toward building an atomic bomb.

But my bet—which is the same as most analysts’—might be wrong. In any case, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, the Iranians won’t have the capability to build a bomb for at least a few years. There’s not much that we can do right now to force a halt to the program. And some recent remarks by Iranian officials are a little too intriguing to ignore.

So, what’s the harm in taking their declarations a bit seriously, in calling their bluff (if that’s what it is), and seeing where things lead? If they lead nowhere, at least we’ll have demonstrated the sincerity of our intentions and the mendacity of theirs—an important step in rallying allies, whose support will be crucial if sanctions (or other sorts of threats) become necessary.

Over the weekend, European and Iranian diplomats held talks about Tehran’s nuclear program, and several officials emerged from the session declaring progress. It wouldn’t be the first time optimism turned sour, but there was one interesting comment. A diplomat told the Associated Press that Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief negotiator, floated the possibility of stopping their uranium enrichment for one or two months, as long as it seemed that they were doing so “voluntarily” and “without pressure.”

Again, this could be—probably is—a ruse, devised to disrupt Western unity and thus keep economic sanctions at bay. If so, it’s working. Last spring, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded President Bush to join the European Union’s negotiations with Iran—but only on the condition that the European Union would join the United States in imposing sanctions if Iran refused to suspend enriching uranium. At the end of August, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was still enriching. By the terms of not only Bush’s informal agreement but also a U.N. Security Council resolution, this report should have triggered sanctions. But it didn’t, or hasn’t yet, because Russia, China, and a few Western European powers object that sanctions would wreck recent progress in diplomacy.

But the interesting thing about Larijani’s proposal is its emphasis on suspending enrichment in a way that seems voluntary—”without pressure.” Repeatedly, these past few months, Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have loudly (if somewhat misleadingly) proclaimed their “inalienable right” to enrich uranium. (They say they have no intention of using it to build nuclear weapons.) Several times, most notably in Ahmadinejad’s loopy letter to President Bush, they have touted their history and standing as a great power.

All of which raises the question: Would a little respect go a long way toward settling this face-off? Do the Iranians want, or feel they need, an atomic arsenal—or would the recognition of their sovereignty and standing, without the accompanying nukes, be sufficient? One of the diplomats who attended the talks this weekend told the AP that the Iranians “are essentially seeking assurances that they will not be bombed while they are talking.”

There are historical precedents for this notion of offering concessions without sacrificing interests. On the third day of the 13-day-long Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy came under growing pressure, even from some of his previously dovish advisers, to bomb the nuclear missiles that the Soviets were starting to install on Castro’s island just 90 miles off American shores. On the tape recordings that JFK secretly made during the crisis, we hear him talking in terms eerily reminiscent of today’s confrontation with Iran:

Many of our allies regard [Cuba] as a fixation of the United States. … Whatever action we take against Cuba, no matter how good our [intelligence] … a lot of people will regard it as a mad act by the United States.

At this point, a few of Kennedy’s advisers argue about whether they should attack the Soviet missiles with or without prior warning. Kennedy interrupts to wonder out loud about Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s motives and to muse about an alternative option—that the United States will withdraw its missiles from the Soviet Union’s southern border in Turkey if Khrushchev withdraws his missiles from our southern border in Cuba. “If we had any sense of giving him some out,” Kennedy says, “it would be Turkey, the missiles.” (At the time, we had 15 intermediate-range missiles in Turkey, which were scheduled to be supplanted in six months anyway with a Polaris submarine, carrying 16 nuclear missiles, in the Mediterranean.)

When Khrushchev proposed precisely this missile swap 10 days later, Kennedy sent his brother Robert to the Soviet Embassy to make the trade—on the condition that it be kept secret. That’s how the crisis was resolved. (The handful of Kennedy advisers who knew about the trade also kept it secret, even lied about the events, for another 20 years—a deception that had horrible consequences, as subsequent presidents absorbed the “lesson” that force and firmness were the only ways to deal with such crises. For more on this, click here.)

Similarly, in 1994, President Bill Clinton faced a showdown with North Korea after its leader, Kim Il-Sung, abrogated the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, unlocked the fuel rods in a pond at his nuclear reactor, and threatened to reprocess them into plutonium for the purpose of making atomic weapons. Clinton thought that Kim had painted himself into a corner and needed an escape hatch—a way to back away from the brink without appearing to buckle under pressure from the U.S. government. So, he opened a diplomatic back channel and sent former President Jimmy Carter as an envoy. It worked. The Carter meeting stopped the move toward reprocessing and led to the 1995 Agreed Framework, which staved off North Korea’s nuclear temptations for eight years. (Kim’s son, Kim Jong-il, renewed the crisis in 2002; the Bush administration wasn’t interested in playing along.)

In both cases, tempestuous dictators took reckless gambles, saw they’d miscalculated, but couldn’t pedal back without suffering unacceptable humiliation—at which point an American president offered a face-saving way out.

These historical precedents may not be parallel to the current situation with Iran. Khrushchev and Kim Il-Sung acted out of desperate weakness. The United States was way ahead of the Soviet Union in intercontinental missiles; North Korea was totally isolated. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, thinks he’s in a position of strength—and he may be right, given his wealth from high oil prices, his economic leverage over Russia and China, Hezbollah’s recent battle with Israel (which it won by not losing), and America’s military quagmire in Iraq.

In the earlier crises, Presidents Kennedy and Clinton concocted a mix of force and diplomacy. Kennedy mounted a naval embargo against Cuba while also sending back-channel signals for the Turkey trade. Clinton ordered a massive mobilization of air, sea, and ground forces to the area around North Korea—some of his former advisers say he was ready to go to war—while also sending Carter on his peace mission.

Maybe President Bush is arranging some similarly shrewd combination to deal with Iran, but it doesn’t seem so. His words contradict one another: One day, Condoleezza Rice is talking up diplomacy; the next day, Dick Cheney (or Bush himself) is denouncing Ahmadinejad as an evil Hitler who must be overthrown. Meanwhile, because of the all-too-visible bog in Iraq, we don’t have the military might—much less the international support—to make good on these threats.

It may be that, in part for these reasons, the Iranians are in no mood—feel no compulsion—to talk or trade away their nuclear program in any case. It might also be that, after the summer’s (still-unsettled) conflict in Lebanon, no American president could negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran without covering the entire panoply of the two countries’ differences. And that may be too much to ask, politically, of Bush or Ahmadinejad.

There’s another parallel—Nixon goes to China. But Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong went cuddly because each needed the other as a counterweight to the threat from Moscow. If Bush or his successor does want to “go to Iran,” he (or she) will have to find and exploit a common enemy, or dangle a reward that only the United States can offer, or do a better job of convincing the rest of the world to cooperate on sanctions.

In the meantime, why not take up the Iranians on every diplomatic gambit they throw at us, if just to show the world that we’re trying to settle this conflict and (assuming they back away from each gambit once we pursue it) the Iranians aren’t? At the very least, we might regain some much-needed credibility. In any case, we’d have nothing to lose. And, who knows, we might eventually have a deal.