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Secretary Pompeo, I Beg to Differ

By Marvin Zonis

Senior U.S. officials are advancing policies to deal with Iran that will not succeed in accomplishing American goals.

“. . . Mr. Pompeo and others [are] arguing that limited air strikes were more likely to perpetuate a cycle of violence than to break it. The Secretary of State backed by the new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, argued that a  more direct strike on Iran –such as hitting its naval vessels – could take the country by surprise and push its leaders to the negotiating table.” (The New York Times, March 22, 2020, p. 20)

As someone immersed for the last sixty years in the study of Iran, its culture and the psychology of its leaders, I am certain Pompeo and Grenell have it completely wrong.

*Iran’s leaders would not be surprised by anything the U.S. did – militarily or otherwise. They fully expect the United States to continue its extraordinary measures – from the sanctions the U.S. has recently made more punishing to the assassination of General Suleimani. What those measures mean to Iran’s leaders is that the U.S. seeks their overthrow and not their returning to negotiations.

*Iran’s leaders will not be ‘pushed’ to the negotiating table. Ayatollah Khamene’i has stated, on multiple occasions, that Iran would enter into talks with the U.S. only if the U.S. reinstated its commitment to the nuclear deal it abandoned in 2018 and Iran would then insist on multilateral talks with all the original signatories.

*Other Iran hawks have argued that just as Iran ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 so it could do so again to end its present conflict with the U.S.

Iraq had invaded Iran in September 1980 in order to seize Iranian oil fields in the midst of turmoil in Tehran following the revolution’s success in ousting the shah and from internal disagreements over what to do with the 52 U.S. diplomats still held by Iran. After some initial success in invading Iranian territory, Iran managed successful counter attacks and by June 1981 forced the invaders back into Iraq. Saddam sued for peace but Ayatollah Khomeini insisted on carrying the war to Iraq. By 1988, both countries were exhausted. But Iraq adopted a new strategy – sending missiles acquired from the Soviet Union into Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. All told, some 200 missiles landed on those cities, killing 2,000. The missiles were inaccurate so could not be  precisely targeted. They were instruments of terror and succeeded in causing panic in the three cities. The panic led Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink from the poisoned chalice” and accept a truce with Iraq.

But the hawks are wrong. There are no real parallels with the current situation because the U.S. is – fortunately – not willing to escalate to a level of violence on Iran that would force their surrender. “Hitting their naval vessels” as Pompeo and Grenell have proposed just won’t bring that about.

*It is unlikely that Ambassador Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, based his judgement on the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community because the Ambassador has been a long-time Iran hawk. For example, on May 8, 2018, within hours of his taking up his post in Germany, he tweeted that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Grenell)

Despite German outrage, he never stopped haranguing the German government and its business leaders about their ties with Iran. His last message to Germany was delivered through Fox News just days before being appointed to his intelligence post. “Germany has a moral responsibility to say to Iran very firmly and clearly that it is unacceptable to deny basic human rights to your people, or kill protesters in the streets or push gay people off buildings. Celebrating the regime’s ongoing existence sends the opposite message.” (https://www.foxnews.com/politics/who-is-richard-grenell)

The arguments put forward by senior Trump officials are not based on intelligence about the intentions of Iran’s leaders or any profound understanding of them or their country. To the contrary, the American government’s senior leaders are putting forth policy options based on an ideology that derives from a commitment to overthrowing the clerical regime and not from an understanding of how to induce Iran to accept American overtures to negotiate.

Absent any basic understanding of Iran, their policy proposals will consistently fail.


Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus at the Booth School of Business and former president of the American Institute of Iranian Studies.