Fouad Ajami: Back to the Iranian Bazaar

Iran’s theocrats fully understand Washington’s strategic predicament.

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There have been rumors of war and rumors of an accommodation. But remarkably enough, for all the sound and fury, the pattern of American-Iranian relations has held for three decades. There has been an uneasy peace between the Pax Americana and the Persian state. Now that the Bush stewardship of American foreign policy is drawing to a close, it appears virtually certain that the American president who designated Iran a charter member of the "axis of evil," who threatened endlessly that the military option is on the table, will end his presidency without the resort to arms.

With American military campaigns on Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was never a serious prospect of yet another military engagement in the Muslim world. The Iranian theocrats, a skilled and crafty breed, fully understood Washington's strategic predicament. No fools, they have been attentive to the American presidential campaign. There is dovishness in the air, and the presumptive Democratic Party candidate has made an accommodation with Iran a centerpiece of his diplomatic style. Still, afraid of seeming soft on Iran, Sen. Barack Obama, traveling in Israel, said that he would "take no options off the table" in confronting the Iranian threat. Doubtless, he did not grasp the irony of falling back on an echo of President Bush's mantra.

Pity the true believers on the right and on the left who took at face value the tough tone of Bush toward Iran. In a stunning turn of events, the Bush administration let it be known that a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran is in the works. Furthermore, the No. 3 State Department official, Under Secretary of State William Burns, was dispatched to Geneva for talks between the European Union's foreign policy chief and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator in the presence of the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). In diplomatic-speak, there was on the table a "freeze-for-freeze," under which Iran would halt its uranium enrichment program and the major powers would refrain from pursuing further sanctions against the regime. In the way of the bazaar, there was nothing conclusive about the Geneva meeting, and the threat of these sanctions would once again be heard. Washington had gone the extra mile, but the Iranians are yet to renounce their nuclear ambitions.

By all accounts, Iran's economy is on the ropes. The country has electricity rationing and blackouts; a major oil producer is in the embarrassing position of being one of the biggest importers of gasoline because of a shortage of refineries. The promise by the populist presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of "putting the oil money on the dinner table" has ended in failure.

Spoiler role. The radical regime in Tehran has had it both ways since its inception. It has warred against the order of states but has been skilled at stepping back from the brink when needed. Indeed, the international environment has been quite merciful toward the Iranian rulers. Of late, the rise in oil prices came to the rescue of the regime. From Tehran, there have been alternate displays of bravado and reasonableness. The Iranians loathed their Arab neighbors, but they have been keen to present themselves as defenders of the order of the Persian Gulf against the "hegemonism" of the Americans. They have been good at exploiting the inevitable errors committed by an America often at a loss in the face of Middle Eastern intrigues and complexities.

It is the perfect spoiler role for the Iranians. They can pick and choose the places, and the issues, over which they make their stand. They can occupy three islands that belonged to the United Arab Emirates but still turn Dubai into an offshore base of the Iranian economy. They can foment troubles in Iraq while posing as faithful friends of the new Iraq. It would appear that the Bush administration, now, has come to a resigned fatalism about Iran and its ways.

"Our guys, they got taken to the cleaners," former Secretary of State George Shultz once famously said of the arms- for-hostages trade with Iran that nearly wrecked the Reagan administration. We need to recall that cautionary tale if negotiations with Iran emerge as the American policy of choice. All revolutions have their life cycle: their phase of fury and belief, their institutionalization, then their mellowing and acceptance of the world. Alas, nothing on the horizon promises that Iran's theocrats are ready to settle down to normalcy and routine.