When I was in Tehran last May, I was assured by a number of apparently well-connected journalists that the Nasr family had a direct line into Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s inner circle. As a result, I always pay close attention to what Vali Nasr, who served as a special adviser to Richard Holbrooke during the first two years of Obama’s presidency, writes about Iran’s foreign policy. In a very important column entitled “Hard-Line U.S. Policy Tips Iran Toward Belligerence” published today by Bloomberg, Nasr made clear how close to a military confrontation we are coming and how we appear to be misunderstanding the perceptions and calculations of Tehran’s leadership.
While the column really must be read in full, Nasr argues that recent actions taken by Iran add up to a “defiance [that] marks a change” in its previously muted response to Western pressure.
They now see the U.S. policy on Iran — of toughening sanctions and also, at the United Nations, addressing Iran’s human-rights record and support for terrorism — as one aimed at regime change.
That makes attaining nuclear weapons of critical importance to the clerics. Without such weapons, Iran could face the Libya scenario: economic pressure causing political unrest that invites intervention by foreign powers that feel safe enough to interfere in the affairs of a non-nuclear-armed state.
In Nasr’s view, the “policy debate in Tehran” appears to have been settled in favor of a considerably more hostile stance. The column concludes:
Obama administration officials think Iran is weak and isolated. They focus on the country’s shambolic economy, its faltering relations with Europe, and the effect the Arab Spring has had in turning public opinion in the Middle East against Iran.
But Iran’s rulers have a different outlook. Here’s what they see: The U.S. and Europe are economically weak and extremely vulnerable to high oil prices. China and Russia have broken with the U.S. and Europe over Iran. The U.S. is hastily leaving Iraq and abandoning the war in Afghanistan. U.S. relations with Pakistan are unraveling.
Iran’s rulers believe the new Middle East is a greater strategic challenge to the U.S. than to Iran. For the U.S., the region will be far less pliable under rising Islamists than it was under secular dictators. As those Islamists take control of governments from Morocco to Egypt, new opportunities arise for Tehran to forge diplomatic and economic ties.
Consequently, the Iranian regime thinks it can counter international pressure on its nuclear activities long enough to get to a point of no return on a weapons program.
Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely. There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.