But over time the conviction seems to be growing in Tehran that President Obama is unwilling to take Iran on, and the fact that the President didn’t make the confrontation with Iran a centerpiece of his State of the Union message will be read in Iran as yet another signal. Their nuclear program isn’t a high enough priority for this President to lead to war.
We are constantly being told what signals U.S. action or inaction will send, and that assumes a degree of hawkish understanding of how other regimes perceive the world that is rarely in evidence. Hawks typically assume that belligerent rhetoric sends the “right” signal of “toughness.” It doesn’t seem to bother them that this sort of rhetoric often heightens a regime’s paranoia and makes it less likely to yield on the disputed issue, which in turn makes conflict harder to avoid. In this case, it’s even less likely that hawks understand how the Iranian regime might “read” Obama’s words from the State of the Union address. Here’s what Obama said:
Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.
Now I certainly hope that this means that the U.S. is willing to accept a negotiated solution to the dispute with Iran, but then I believe a war with Iran would be an entirely unnecessary calamity for all parties. On the other hand, if I were in the Iranian government why would I put any trust in offers made by this or any other administration? Having seen that the U.S. has done more or less the same thing to regimes that resisted (Iraq) as well as those that yielded (Libya), Iran’s leaders might conclude that the best chance for the security of the regime is not to make a deal. If Iran’s leaders assume that the U.S. will seek to overthrow them sooner or later anyway, they have few incentives to reach an agreement. In other words, the “tougher” Obama’s Iran policy becomes, the less likely it is to gain Iranian cooperation. The signals that supposedly show how “serious” the U.S. is about this issue could easily be interpreted in the “wrong” way by the regime.
Let me add a few words about the frequent use of euphemisms to describe illegal warfare. When Mead says Obama may not be willing to “take Iran on,” it’s easier to forget that “taking on” Iran means launching an illegal attack on another country and killing some unknown number of Iranians, many of whom will be civilians. The Iran debate in America is so warped that the possibility that the president might not be inclined to wage aggressive war against another country is taken as proof that there is something wrong with the president. Viewed from outside the U.S., our government’s willingness to wage wars of choice probably doesn’t send the signal to pariah and authoritarian regimes that Washington wants them to receive. Instead of intimidating Iran into yielding, our government’s recent track record of waging wars explicitly for regime change may be signalling that trying to negotiate any deal is a fool’s errand.
P.S. It should go without saying that becoming more actively involved in helping to overthrow Assad is just the sort of thing to increase Iranian distrust and paranoia, since they will assume that the same thing is in store for them not that far in the future. Increased meddling in Syria makes a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue harder, and makes an Iranian war more likely.