The Iranian-American Game of Chicken

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.

Secondly, Iranian leaders believe the disaster from military strikes would spread to its neighbors, making them wary of conflict. Saudi leaders may have urged America to “cut off the head of the snake,” but Iranian decision makers perceive a government in Saudi Arabia that is willing to fight Iran only down to the last American soldier. Because any attack on Iran would require airspace and military-base acquiescence from Riyadh, Saudi officials know they would be subject to Iranian retaliations.

Thus, the Iranian government sees the United States in a bind. In this view, none of America’s options are intuitively good, but it cannot afford to allow continued Iranian defiance. Tehran views “containment” efforts as Washington’s best option because it cannot bomb, does not want to talk and cannot inflict game-changing costs for Iran’s resistance. That’s why Iranian decision makers appear willing to persevere as American-led pressure increases—and wait for their position to improve.

Tehran’s actions indicate that any strategic, long-term solution may require an interim deterioration in relations. For Iran, that means logistical support for politicians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; and announcing new “facts on the ground” in its nuclear program—so that policy makers in Washington cannot ignore this deterioration or gloss over it with short-term tactics—namely, increasing pressure and delaying the inevitable choice between military action and sustained diplomacy in the hopes of Iran changing its behavior.

Iran seems to be betting on an American national-security establishment that will not allow another war, possesses a lack of viable options for U.S. “regime change” policies, and will therefore eventually change its policy towards Iran as regional instability increasingly requires collective solutions.

Both Iran and the United States are playing an extremely dangerous game based on misperceptions. Each side seems to be misreading the strength and resolve of the other. In this game of chicken, small errors in judgment can result in military confrontation. And in game theory, the opponent that seems “irrational” or “crazy” can win. That perception in Tehran could heighten the danger.

For the Islamic Republic, this has been the underpinning of its approach since Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency in 2005. It is also one reason why the Iranian system did not try to contain him until recently. During my tenure at the State Department, it was unmistakable that Ahmadinejad's image of being ideological and seeking to drive Iran into a war to expedite the Hidden Imam’s return had crystallized within the Washington policy-making community. Few could understand why the Islamic Republic did not contain him to the degree that it could, given how fragile the U.S.-Iran impasse had become.

Iran knows that it is playing a risky game, but its self-confidence vis-à-vis the United States has grown since it survived what it saw as eight years of antagonism and confrontation from the George W. Bush administration. Adding to that confidence is the widespread regional upheaval. Thus, Tehran will likely continue waiting for what it perceives as appropriate U.S. moves toward dialogue. These misperceptions and miscalculations will likely prevent the Iranian government from backing down in the current standoff because it believes that, if Iran does not give up, geopolitical realities will cause America to change course at some point in the foreseeable future.