“Empathize with your enemy.” It is the first of eleven lessons offered by the former US Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara in the award-winning 2002 documentary “Fog of War.”
In that film, a feisty MacNamara laments how a talented US foreign policy team lost the war in Vietnam by failing to understand the nature of conflict and the motivations of the enemy.
Today, the United States and its allies are slowly but steadily ramping up pressure on the Iranian regime. The foremost consideration of the United States and its allies is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, preferably through a diplomatic track that avoids military force. A secondary goal is to reduce and limit Iran’s regional influence.
But has the West followed MacNamara’s guidance and empathized with the Iranian regime to understand its goals, fears, and motivations? Stronger sanctions and diplomatic pressure are the best of an imperfect menu of options available to Western policymakers, but they are not without risk. The West should consider how its present course of action might produce an unanticipated response from an increasingly isolated and paranoid Iranian regime.
Empathizing with the enemy is not easy, but it is wise. To do so, let’s go into the mind of the Ayatollah….
Imagine for a moment that you are the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran.
Your Islamic regime, which has governed since 1979, is under unprecedented external pressure from the United States and its allies. Last week, the European Union agreed to a phased embargo of your country’s lifeblood, oil, to begin July 1st. Your chief regional and ideological competitor in the region, Saudi Arabia, has promised an increase in oil output to compensate for the loss from the embargo. On top of that, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao just returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, leading to speculation that Beijing intends to cool relations with your increasingly isolated country.
Perhaps more ominously, the United States and the European Union are working to sanction Iran’s Central Bank and institutions that do business with it. Western sanctions have rattled the currency markets, dramatically reducing the value of the Iranian rial an additional 20 percent in just the last week against the US dollar. You see these measures as nothing short of economic warfare against your regime. Worse yet, the Iranian government’s elimination of popular subsidies for consumer goods has pushed up inflation, estimated at 40 percent.
You are well aware of the political ferment sweeping across the region. Authoritarian regimes, though far different than your own, have fallen in a wave of popular uprisings, in some cases aided and abetted by Western diplomatic and military intervention. Some have declared your country the victor of the ‘Arab spring’ thanks to the downfall of loyal US allies like Hosni Mubarak. You are not so sure.
Syria, your closest regional ally and entrée into the Mediterranean and the Levant, is in the midst of a popular civil war. Privately you doubt that President Assad will make it through 2012, and you suspect that the West will collude with the Saudis and other Arab states to push him out.
While you are confident that your own security services remain willing to crush any opposition, you are uncomfortably aware that the regional protest movement began in your country with the Green Revolution in 2009. The wall of fear held then, but you worry that the Arab spring and mounting economic difficulties may have emboldened your own citizens.
You are in the midst of a battle for power with your erstwhile ally President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fraudulent 2009 re-election started the Green Revolution that you helped crush. Since then, you and Ahmadinejad have had a major falling out. His populist grandstanding and defiance of the West was useful to you until he got his own ideas about challenging the sacrosanct authority of the clerics. You know he seeks to participate in nuclear negotiations with the West to elevate his own standing further, and you and your allies in the clerical establishment are determined to prevent him from doing so.
You are not going to let Ahmadinejad–or anyone else for that matter–negotiate away the nuclear program, which is one of the few bright spots left for your regime. Despite repeated acts of sabotage by Western and Israeli intelligence, the program continues to make substantial progress. It is a great source of accomplishment for your regime and the proud Iranian nation.
Ahmadinejad has publicly refused to concede ‘one iota’ on the nuclear program. But this is more than just his usual grandstanding. Your regime will not retreat because doing so would threaten its very existence and legitimacy. To back down now would make you and your regime look weak to its internal and external enemies. Your regime is increasingly dependent on progress on the nuclear front – and western opposition to it – to maintain popular support in the face of growing pressure.
Moreover, you do not trust the West in a negotiated settlement. You noted how quickly the West betrayed Muammar al-Qaddafi after he gave up his WMD programs. And you are well aware of how quickly the United States toppled your neighbors to the east and west in 2001 and 2003 respectively. They have always had it out for your regime and would love nothing more than to see you go the way of the former Libyan strongman.
But it might surprise many in the West to know that you do not fear a US or Israeli attack against your nuclear facilities. To the contrary, it might be just the medicine your ailing regime needs. You know President Obama doesn’t want another long, bloody war on his hands–and neither do the American people. The most America would do is bomb the nuclear sites and perhaps sink some Iranian naval vessels in a conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. It would be just enough to unify the Iranian people around your embattled regime, drive up the price of oil, and invite you to retaliate against your enemies in Israel and the Gulf through your proxies.
And an Israeli strike? One can always dream! For as you know, nothing would divide the US from its allies or elevate your country’s standing on the Arab street faster.
No, no. The West and its allies are too crafty to bomb you outright, much as you might like that. What you fear most is that they will strangle you slowly through a campaign of sanctions and isolation that they think can force you back to the negotiating table.
But you can’t afford to negotiate away your nuclear program. And you can’t sit back and die a death of a thousand cuts. Pretty soon, you’ll have to stop playing defense and go on offense. Your survival – and that of the Revolution – is at stake.
Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Program on International Security.