The Futility of Trying to Wish Iran into Being Rational
It was little surprise when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff panned a potential strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel. The Obama administration has been squishy on its relationship with Israel from the start, and fears an Israeli strike devolving into a crisis for which the White House is even less prepared than the current drama.
It was jarring, though, to see Gen. Martin Dempsey give far too much credit to the ability of this Iranian regime to be an equal negotiating partner.
In an interview aired Sunday on CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, Dempsey was asked by the host if he viewed Iran's behavior as "highly irrational" and "sort of unpredictable," or whether they are "fairly calculating."
"I'll tell you that I've been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008," Dempsey said. "And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it's for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we're on is the most prudent path at this point." That's the path of sanctions and "open-hand" negotiation that has proven fruitless thus far, and brushing aside talk of the option of military action while claiming that all options are still on the table.
Any country that has made "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" chants part of their repertoire since 1979, that held three young American hikers on laughable charges for two years after plucking them off the Kurdish border, that operates off an apocalyptic view that "the Jews should be fought against and forced to surrender to prepare the way for the coming of the Hidden Imam” (Ayatollah Hussein Nuri Hamdani, 2005) is not operating rationally. The degree of calculation by which they buy time for their nuclear program walks hand-in-hand with, not in conflict with, Tehran's irrationality and unpredictability.
So why the insistence that Iran is, somewhere deep inside, willing to play by the rules toward America's preferred resolution? Not just from Dempsey, but take White House spokesman Jay Carney at today's press briefing: "We feel as I’ve said and others have said, as, most importantly, the president has said, that there is time and space for diplomacy to work, for the effective sanctions to result in a change in Iranian behavior, an agreement by Iran to live up to its obligations, to engage in negotiations and resolve this matter peacefully."
Diplomats might characterize the strategy as how you'd approach a disturbed person on a ledge. You don't point out that he's off the reservation, but calmly try to reason with the person that he is capable of making the right choice, doesn't have to hurt himself or others, and is a better person than that.
But even that can be counterproductive when allowed to drag on for too long. Anyone who's ever dealt with a person suffering from bipolar disorder, for example, knows that he is not operating with a rational mind and is not making rational judgments. Loving support is essential, but if you write off too much of the bad behavior from a person who refuses to get treatment, you're an enabler. You can be manipulated by the ill person. You have to draw the line somewhere with the destructive behavior toward others.
This is not to draw a comparison between radical Shiites who would annihilate the Jewish state and those suffering from bipolar; rather, it's illustrative of how there comes a point when glass-half-full approaches come to an end.
In diplomacy, you can cross the line into weaponizing your adversary with your words.
Perhaps more telling than Dempsey's words is how the Iranians covered them.
State-owned Iran Press TV led with the headline "US Gen. Dempsey: Iran rational actor, not after nukes." Their story highlighted his comment, “We also know, or we believe we know that Iran has not decided to make a nuclear weapon.” It also focused on how the general said a strike against Iran would be "destabilizing."
"The remarks come as Israeli officials have ramped up their war rhetoric over the past few weeks, threatening Iran with military strikes in case the US-led Western sanctions against the country fail to force Tehran to halt its civilian nuclear program," Press TV reported.
Iran's friends cast the interview in a similar light, with Russia Today seizing on the rift created between Washington and the Jewish state by Dempsey's comments.
Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior Israeli officials told visiting National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of their "dissatisfaction" with Dempsey's comments.
"We made it clear to Donilon that all those statements and briefings only served the Iranians," a senior Israeli official said. "The Iranians see there's controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them."
Iran Press TV was among those rejoicing in the controversy: "Israel irked by top US officials' opposition to Iran attack."
And amid quibbling about the wisdom of striking Iran's nuclear facilities, the "rational actor" was emboldened enough today to talk about its own preemptive strikes.
Deputy Head of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces for Logistic and Industrial Research General Mohammad Hejazi, a senior commander, told the semi-official Fars News Agency that Tehran would use every means possible to respond to "potential" enemy aggressions.
"We will no more wait to see enemy action against us," Hejazi said. "Given this strategy, we will make use of all our means to protect our national interests and hit a retaliatory blow at them whenever we feel that enemies want to endanger our national interests."
The article pointedly reminded all of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's remarks to students on Nov. 10. "Iran is not a nation to sit still and just observe threats from fragile materialist powers which are being eaten by worms from inside," Khamenei said. "Anyone who harbors any thought of invading the Islamic Republic of Iran -- or even if the thought crosses their mind -- should be prepared to receive strong blows and the steel fists of the military, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and the Basij force, backed by the entire Iranian nation."
"Iran will respond with full force to any aggression or even threats in a way that it will demolish the aggressors from within," the ayatollah added.
The administration's posture toward Iran has raised the concern not just of this Congress, as noted in a bipartisan letter Friday from a group of senators warning Obama to beware stall tactics from Tehran. Even two years ago frustrated lawmakers were joining across the aisle in a push led by Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to implore President Obama that "time is not on our side" and that the commander in chief must fulfill his June 2008 pledge that he would do "everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
The Islamic Republic, as it seems, has at least enough of a rational mind to realize then and now that those were just words.