Sunday, December 9, 2007

What Was Iran Thinking?

If the NIE is correct that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program several years ago, then why does Iran give some people the impression it is hiding something?

Possible Answers:
  • Pride – Why is it incumbent upon us Iranians to prove our innocence while you are slapping us in the face?
  • Culture Clash – First, the current practice in Washington of publicly humiliating opponents in order to get them to be cooperative may be counterproductive. Second, the rhetorical style of Iranian statements, and particularly of Ahmadinejad’s personal rhetoric, sometimes makes it hard for Westerners to see past their emotional reaction to the actual message.
  • Willful Blindness – The Iranians have repeatedly stated their innocence and offered to negotiate without preconditions, but some in the U.S. have private agendas that make them resistant to this message.

Maybe the truth is simply what Iran says it is: Iran has a right to nuclear technology and is pursuing that technology but will stop short of producing weapons, not because of Western threats but because it wants nuclear energy, not weapons. Possibly so, but the truth probably goes at least a bit further than that: for Iran to have the clear, publicly recognized capability to produce nuclear arms if needed accomplishes two things:

  • Nuclear weapons capability arguably enhances Iran’s security by sending a warning without posing an immediate threat. This argument in the current international atmosphere is weakened considerably by the tendency of many to panic over the possibility that Iran might in the future obtain a few primitive versions of the weapons Israel and the U.S. already have. However, the fact that we may realize that this argument is a weak one does not prove Iranians do not believe it.
  • Nuclear weapon capability (or just the global perception thereof) dramatically strengthens Ahmadinejad’s personal political position.

Ahmadinejad may have been playing a dangerous game, but there is a certain logic to an ambitious politician exploiting fear and tension to enhance his own power: a risk-taking politician will calculate that the chance of war is small and the personal payoff from high tension (absent war) is enormous.

Maybe now Washington can stop playing Ahmadinejad’s game.

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