In the Arena

Iran Amok

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There are several possible responses to the appalling news that Iran seems to have brought espionage charges against three American hikers who wandered across the Kurdish border. Taken together with Iran’s apparent decision not to agree to the nuclear treaty it had agreed to, this is yet another signal of the Iranian regime going off the rails. No doubt, assorted neoconservatives in the U.S. will want to use this as an excuse to whack the Khamenei-Whomever government rhetorically, economically and toss in some use of force threats as well.

Which will give the regime exactly what it wants and needs: proof that the Great Satan exists. I’ve mentioned before my favorite piece of official graffiti painted on the old U.S. Embassy in Tehran: “On the day the Great Satan praises us, we shall mourn.” It always seemed a classic bit of ju-jitsu to me: Want to make the Iranian leaders uncomfortable? Praise them. Or, at least, don’t play into their need for a satanic enemy.

This is essentially what Barack Obama has been doing this year: acting reasonably toward Iran, which drives the regime crazy. Clearly, Khamenei-Ahmadi-Whomever are on the defensive. Obama’s negotiating tactics have established that it’s Iran, not the U.S., that is the impediment to a more peaceful world. That’s news? You might ask. Well, yes, to much of the world. It has placed our fair-weather European allies firmly on our side and even has the Russians–at least, their putative president Dmitri Medvedev, leaning toward another round of sanctions.

But most important, Obama’s tactics have placed enormous internal pressure on the already divided Iranian regime. It looks even more foolish now in the eyes of its own people, after negotiating and then backing away from a nuclear deal. Its outrageous attempt to charge three hikers with espionage makes it look even dopier.

So what’s a superpower to do? Nothing dramatic, for the moment. Press for the release of the hikers. Stick to the December deadline on the nuclear fuel deal and then, if the Iranians don’t play, push for sanctions and hope the Russians and Chinese will cooperate, as they have on North Korea. The President should also lay out a containment and deterrence plan that makes it clear to the Iranians that we will take steps to make sure that their influence is limited in the region.

How do you do that? Quietly let the Iranians know that we will support and help with any regional efforts to resist Iranian adventurism–from Israeli efforts to seize Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah or Hamas (a major Hizballah haul was seized a few weeks ago) to guarantees that we will provide nuclear protection for the other states in the region. The public saber-rattling should be kept to a minimum. Obama should continue to send holiday greetings and such to the Iranian people; he should make it clear to the Iranian leadership that he remains open to real talks–but that any new talks will require front-end Iranian gestures, rather than smoke and mirrors, starting with acquiescence to the nuclear deal.

The Iranians are blowing a major opportunity here. When I was in Iran last June, people would constantly ask me: Is Obama for real? Is he serious about peace? I would say yes and warn them that if they didn’t respond to his opening, the next U.S. government might not be so welcoming. The regime should understand that if this opportunity is missed, the Iranian people might not be too happy, either.