Talking Tough With Iran

On Friday I mentioned that the Bush-Petraeus approach was about to go regional, and when you step back and take a look at the past few weeks, there are a lot of indications that we’re already seeing that shift into high gear. In addition to Petraeus’ promotion to CENTCOM commander, we’ve also seen a significant ratcheting up of the rhetoric towards Iran, beginning with the Petraeus-Crocker hearings, continuing on to Robert Gates’ statements of concern, and culminating with JCS Adm. Mullen’s pointed warnings about contingency planning and available military strike capacity. In some ways, the Syria-N. Korea briefing can also be viewed as a not-so-veiled warning to Tehran, both in its reminder of Israel’s independence of action, but also in the reframing of last December’s Iran NIE, which didn’t get much notice but struck me as very significant. Given the factional tensions within the Bush administration, the immediate reaction has been to wonder whether the Iran hawks haven’t regained the upper hand.

Another interpretation, though, is that the recent round of sabre-rattling represents the Bush administration’s acceptance that any effort to stabilize Iraq will depend to a large degree on Iran’s cooperation. While most critics of the Bush administration’s regional policy assumed that meant some sort of diplomatic engagement, it’s also true that as things stand on the ground, “more of the same” favors Iran’s bargaining position. Without some sort of shift in the regional balance of power, Tehran has little incentive to make the kinds of concessions that would allow for a deal that advances our interests.

Given, then, that Iran responded to the last round of American threats in Iraq by shutting the faucet on EFP’s and arms headed for militias, and given that there are widely reported concurrent diplomatic feelers taking place, this could be an attempt to balance those initiatives with the credible threat of force that would provide incentive for Iran to trade in its current role of spoiler in Iraq for a more productive one. The question remains whether the threat is truly credible, given the enormous consequences a strike on Iran would have on our regional interests. There’s also reason to worry about this administration’s judicious use of the “threat of force.”

But I’m not sure the rhetoric alone is reason for alarm. A lot will depend on Iran’s response, both on Iraq and on other regional issues. With that in mind, Iran’s national security advisor just offered a visiting Russian delegation a plan for ending the uranium enrichment stalemate whose details have yet to be made public. The sabre-rattling might not prove to be effective, but it isn’t taking place in a vacuum.