The Iranian-American Game of Chicken

Tensions escalate as Tehran and Washington wait to see who will flinch first.

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi made headlines recently when he said the Islamic Republic would like to have friendly relations with the United States—but not under the current conditions. He added that while U.S. officials express a desire for discussions, U.S. actions don’t always conform to that expression. In the meantime, “negotiations will certainly not have any meaning.”

For their part, American officials accuse the Iranians of a similar inconsistency. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently to BBC Persian, “We are prepared to engage, if there is willingness on the other side, and we use sanctions—and the international community supports the use of sanctions—to try to create enough pressure on the regime that they do have to think differently about what they are doing.”

In an increasingly dangerous region where adversaries repeatedly provoke one another, it is important to dig beyond the rhetoric of this increasingly intense confrontation to better understand how the Iranian government views its own geopolitical standing. The thirty-two year absence of direct communication channels between America and Iran has fostered a dangerous cycle of miscalculation, misunderstanding and escalation. Salehi’s remarks reflect an Iranian view—based largely on these misperceptions and miscalculations—that time is on Tehran’s side.

Contrary to popular assumptions in Washington, the Iranian government’s skepticism regarding negotiations is not rooted in an ideological opposition to improving relations with the United States. Rather, Tehran perceives political constraints—both foreign and domestic—that limit Washington’s ability to engage in substantive diplomacy. Therefore, Iranian decision makers appear willing to wait and try again when events seem more propitious.

It is important to understand that Iran does not see itself as weakened by bilateral tensions and regional flux. Thus, hard-liners in Tehran grow more confident from perceived U.S. missteps and strongly oppose any relations with America that would require Iranian acquiescence to the status quo regional order and undermine Tehran’s perceived independence.

Iran’s long-term security calculation sees no downside in rejecting any engagement with Washington that places Iran in the role of compliant U.S. ally. Iranian decision makers see no example in the Middle East of relations with the U.S. based on equal footing. Patron-client relations are the norm, a norm Iran rejects for itself.

Foreign Minister Salehi’s remarks signal that the Iranian government is interested only in strategic negotiations that address the concerns of both sides and define in advance the desired result.

Given the influence of Israel, Congress and the Saudis on U.S. decision makers, Tehran views a strategic shift by Washington as highly unlikely. Thus, Iranian hard-liners see more value in shelving the notion of rapprochement and pursuing instead a “codified rivalry”—one in which Tehran attempts to foster Washington’s military exit from the region while avoiding any open military confrontation.

Against a backdrop of sanctions, stuxnet and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, decision makers are taking a huge risk. But the Islamic Republic’s geopolitical calculation is telling.

Tehran perceives an international climate in which America cannot afford to place serious sanctions on Iran. Oil, gas and central-bank sanctions would boost energy prices beyond a tolerable threshold—and the idea is to hurt Iran, not itself. Iranian decision makers also see an international community that is genuinely concerned with Tehran’s reaction to increased pressure. What if the Islamic Republic drops out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty altogether? The view is that Washington then would face confrontations for which it does not have the bandwidth.

Beyond that, Tehran believes Washington still has a serious credibility issue in the aftermath of false reporting on what proved to be Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Iranian leaders see added credibility challenges for Washington stemming from the allegations that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Evidence supporting the allegation has remained scant. Tehran believes the combination of these factors makes it difficult for the West to use similar arguments in asking for hard action on Iran.

This geopolitical calculation illustrates why Iranian decision makers erroneously put little credence into military threats emanating from Washington and Tel Aviv. When evaluating the likelihood of military strikes, the Islamic Republic considers two key points.

First, the Iranian government perceives a U.S. military that is overstretched and a military leadership that knows it. Numerous American commanders are on record stating that opening another front would be highly burdensome politically, economically and militarily.

For this reason, Tehran sees a leadership in Tel Aviv whose hands are tied. Iranian decision makers consider a military strike by the United States or Israel to be one and the same. Multiple reports indicate former president Bush denied Israeli requests to bomb Iran prior to the end of his presidency, and Tehran therefore puts little stock in the more urbane Obama administration giving the green light. Iranian leaders perceive Netanyahu’s bluster as a bluff to facilitate more crippling sanctions. As such, they will likely counter in this ongoing game of brinksmanship and saber rattling before internalizing Israeli bellicosity and changing their strategic calculus.

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