Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Iran's "Dignity" and the Bomb

Reading through the recent SPIGEL interview with Iran's President Ahmadinejad the theme of being humiliated and melting out humiliation is invoked several times. There are echoes of this theme in his development, and certainly in Iran’s modern history, but it is the implications of these themes for Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons that is my focus here.

David Ignatius recently raised an interesting question about why the Iranian government wanted to develop a nuclear arsenal. He noted their “implacability” and attributed it to three sources: divisions in the ruling elite, their theocratic view that mandates from God can’t be negotiated, and their elevation of “dignity” as an irreducible essential of the regime’s goals.

The first provides an opening for negotiations as it implies that there is a range of views on this issue, some of which might be the basis for some kind of agreement. That of course depends on the real range of those views and the relative importance of those who hold them.

The second and third elements provide much less room for optimism. Religious fervor and conviction are not generally associated with willingness to compromise. Moreover, when religious fervor and conviction are coupled with the strong strategic advantages that nuclear weapons would bring to Iran, the chances of compromise seem small.

Finally, the issue of “dignity” raises a wholly new element in this debate. International relations theorists talk a great deal about “reassurance,” the idea that aggressive powers are really, underneath, insecure and only need to be comforted by declarations and demonstrations of good intentions. The questions that some ask of this view is whether insecurity can exist along side aggressiveness or hostility without necessarily being their sole cause. Moreover, tyrannical leaders tend to view reassurance as either cynical or a sign of weakness.

Dignity, however, is another matter entirely. It’s opposite is humiliation and disrespect. Ignatius thinks this “is not a political demand, nor can it be achieved through negotiation.” If he is right, the United States and its allies are in big trouble, not only with Iran but also in the rest of the Middle East. There, a witches’ brew of real trauma (colonialism), lack of political and economic development, and cynical exploitation by the regions’ many corrupt leaders have made “humiliation” a common and easy frame to keep power and stir up the masses.

Certainly no country likes to be publicly humiliated, which is why discussions of conflict resolution so often involve “face saving” or not backing advisories into a corner from which war is the only means of extraction. The difficult line to navigate is how to address dignity without giving up legitimate policy concerns in order to do so. The idea that my concerns with dignity require that you allow me to do what I want is hardly conducive to genuine negotiation. Moreover, that position is an obvious attempt to stack the deck in one’s favor. After all, who could be against a country maintaining its “dignity?”

In truth, negotiation as an equal is also a sign of respect. Being able to build and operate nuclear power plants is a sign of national accomplishment and a source of well-deserved national pride.

The development of missiles capable of hitting Israel, parts of Europe and eventually parts of the United States, coupled with the push to develop nuclear war heads, along with aggressive rhetoric has little to do with dignity and everything to do with threat. The Iranians frame their military quest as a matter of dignity at their own risk with an administration seared by 9/11

Critics of American national security policy assert that the United States often fails to see itself as others see it. Presumably, to do so would lead to a more understanding, less assertive set of policies. Perhaps. However, no country can respond reassuringly to all the misperceptions that others have of it, especially if that country is the object of many conflicted and ambivalent feelings.

Doesn’t this apply to Iran as well? Yes, to some degree although Iran doesn’t hold the iconic stature or worldwide responsibilities that the United States does. Still, Iran has every right to consider whether American and European concerns are well founded. Yet, to do so, it must first give those concerns real attention and weight.

Dismissive proclamations that it ”won’t give a dam” about U.N. Council votes, threats of ”harm and pain” against the United States, and extremely Ill-considered promises to ”wipe Israel off the map”may be meant to serve a strategic purpose, but one only can only hope that behind the scenes messianic religious fervor, nationalist pride, and a view that negotiation equals humiliation will not trump a sober appraisals of the risks that Iran’s behavior is escalating.

America is moving toward direct negotiations with Iran, as it must if it is to secure any measure of international or domestic high ground. The administration is doing so in the hope that our allies will back us with tough measures if talks fail. This will indeed be a test for the multilateralists who have argued since Mr. Bush took office that if we just had more consultation, the world would be a safer happier place.

Well, to date there has been an enormous amount of consultation with allies and many others on the question of Iranian nuclear weapons and to date no one but the Iranians seems happier on this matter. After all, the bidding has just really begun (I’ll see your nuclear reactor and raise you a security treaty that allows the Mullahs to rule indefinitely).

If Iran continues in their quest to gain the bomb, it will be hard to argue the world is safer.