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Dealing with Tehran: The key lies in Iran's history

Authors: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
March 29, 2006
International Herald Tribune


After years of indecision and internal squabbling, the Bush administration has finally settled on an Iran policy: Washington will rely on coercive diplomacy—sanctions backed by the threat of military strikes—to rid Iran of its nuclear program, while simultaneously seeking to foment regime change in Tehran.

This approach is ill-advised and based on a fundamental misreading of Iran’s perception of the current standoff.

For the Bush administration, the confrontation is all about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and fears that Iran is seeking to build the bomb.

But for the Iranian government and the vast majority of its citizens, the nuclear issue has become larger than life, a nationalist cause that is all about defending the country’s sovereignty and dignity.

Relying on blustery threats to browbeat Tehran into submission is poised only to backfire. Historical sensitivity and judicious diplomacy are needed to steer the theocratic regime in the right direction.

For Iranians, history is a living enterprise. Throughout the 20th century, Iran was a stomping ground for the great powers. It was a pawn first in the struggle between Britain and Russia, then between America and the Soviet Union.

Behind every shah was a foreign hand that could empower or humble the Peacock Throne. An ancient and proud civilization was reduced to a vassal state, irked by the capitulation treaties repeatedly imposed on it by Occidental powers.

Americans fixate on the 1979 revolution and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But for Iranians, the events of 1953 loom much larger, when America and Britain teamed up to depose a nationalist regime, replacing it with a pliant but tyrannical monarchy.

This past has produced a nation deeply averse to international dictates. That is one of the main reasons the Islamic Revolution has had so much staying power. Iran’s mullahs freed the country of great power domination for the first time in a century.

Themes of sacrifice and resistance remain the currency of Iranian politics; to resist American pressure is to validate national dignity.

With this historical narrative shaping Iran’s approach to the nuclear debate, the Bush administration’s assumption that calibrated pressure will yield Iranian acquiescence is doomed to failure. On the contrary, the more intense the pressure, the more intransigent Iran’s response is likely to be.

As Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said last week, “We know well that a county’s backing down one iota on its undeniable rights is the same as losing everything.”

President George W. Bush may please his conservative base by branding Iran an “axis of evil” and an “outpost of tyranny.” But the provocative rhetoric only plays into the hands of Iran’s hardliners. Washington is far more likely to see its efforts pay off if it tones down its language and adopts a diplomatic stance more mindful of Iran’s historical baggage.

The substance of American diplomacy must change as well. When Tehran is told to suspend its nuclear program or face “dire consequences” at the same time that Washington agrees to help India expand its nuclear program, Iranians only dig in their heels.

Washington should broaden the context of negotiations by tendering clear inducements. The Bush administration has already indicated that it is prepared to discuss with Iran how best to bring stability to Iraq. A U.S.-Iran dialogue should also address broader security issues in the Persian Gulf.

Easing sanctions, releasing Iranian assets frozen since the revolution and ultimately establishing diplomatic relations should also be on the table. The prospect of such rewards will do much more to empower Iranian moderates than a tightened economic embargo or attacks on nuclear facilities.

Tapping into Iran’s national pride rather than confronting it head-on holds out the best hope for containing its nuclear ambitions and undercutting a belligerent regime that depends on isolation and defiance for its political survival.

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