It seemed like a good idea at the time: Increase the military, diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to get the country to bow to the international community on its nuclear enrichment program and curtail its alleged troublemaking in Iraq.
But now, with 15 British sailors and marines held captive and Tehran threatening to withhold its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, that strategy has apparently backfired.
Months of hard-nosed U.S. political and military pressure on Iran may have further radicalized and emboldened the regime, undermining Washington’s stated aim of neutralizing the Iranian threat without resorting to war, analysts say.
Elements of Iran’s government, painted as a rogue state for its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program, responded forcefully to the U.S.-led challenge, those analysts say. Not only have they sparked an international crisis by capturing the 15 Britons in disputed Persian Gulf waters, and airing alleged confessions on television, they’ve ramped up security operations in the gulf with war games and missile launches.
The regime has blamed a fear of U.S. airstrikes for its decision to stop disclosing non-required information about its nuclear program, according to a series of memos described by the Associated Press.
“Iranians are on the offensive because they’re in a defensive posture,” said Patrick Cronin, a former State Department and Pentagon official who is now director of research at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Cronin, a U.S. Navy intelligence officer in the Persian Gulf during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, called the capture of the Britons a “horizontal escalation” meant both to shift the domestic discussion and to gain leverage against the West.
“They have to go on the offensive to change the narrative,” he said. “There’s a domestic audience and a fight over who is the rightful voice of Iran. If they don’t have outside threats, they’re going to lose power. If we slap on sanctions, they can blame the West.”
Overstretched militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing no easy options on confronting Iran’s rising regional ambitions, the Bush administration appeared to settle months ago on a hard-line strategy, U.S. officials and analysts say.
Ranking U.S. officials for months insisted that “no option was off the table” as far as possible military action against Iran. The Pentagon flooded the gulf with U.S. military hardware and leaked word of a policy to “kill or capture” suspected Iranian agents stirring up trouble in Iraq.
As a result, many Iranian officials are convinced that the U.S. remains committed to “regime change” and plans to bomb Iran.
“You can’t divorce [the detention of the Britons] from all the saber-rattling against Iran,” said Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former political science professor at the University of Tehran now based in Cambridge, Mass. “There’s a concern of a U.S.-British concert to control the Persian Gulf waterways.”
But instead of being cowed by the West’s superior military power, Iran sought ways to step up its own pressure.
“Because the U.S. military configurations in the Persian Gulf are very similar to those before the Iraq invasion, and because the neoconservatives in the American administration are prone to this sort of stupidity and craziness, we have been fully prepared in terms of hardware and military arsenals but also software and information for electronic warfare,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, head of the international affairs office of the Islamic Coalition Party, a conservative parliamentary group close to the Iranian leadership.
The clang and clatter of military hardware and rhetoric from all sides has trickled into Iran’s daily discourse. Ordinary residents say they fear a U.S. attack is imminent and that they are powerless to prevent it.
“Will the Americans attack?” is the question on the lips of every Iranian who meets a foreign reporter.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker articles detailing U.S. plans to attack Iran, and a Russian newspaper report specifying this Friday as the day for U.S. airstrikes have made the rounds of blogs and Persian-language satellite channels.
Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a professor of political science at Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabai University, suggested Iranians thought the British naval personnel were assigned to test Iranian military readiness.
“One scenario is that their intrusion was a prelude for a large-scale assault,” he said.
This week, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firoozabadi, Iranian armed forces chief of staff, predicted that the U.S. and Israel would launch a massive attack on the region this summer.
“International Zionism and the Palestine-usurping Israel with the support of the reactionary neoconservatives of the U.S. are preparing a new plan,” he said, according to Iranian news agencies.
“Americans and the West will lose with this plan,” he said. “But the Islamic countries are in danger.”
Instead of opening its nuclear technology facilities to inspectors, Taraghi said, the government is more cautious than ever about revealing details of its program to inspectors so that the information “cannot be used against [us] in any likely war waged” by the West.
“We should not volunteer information regarding our nuclear sites, as they may be misused by Americans,” he said.
Iran says its program is intended for peaceful purposes. Western nations allege it is the prelude to a nuclear weapons program.
The United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran over its failure to halt uranium enrichment.
The Iranian government’s increasingly bellicose tone and its suspicion of Western motives also may be the result of being backed into a corner and inundated daily with domestic threats and plots, said Christopher Rundle, a former British diplomat to Iran and honorary president of the Institute of Iranian Studies at Durham University in Britain.
“Iran is full of conspiracy theories, and some of them may be right,” he said. “The Americans might be supporting Baluchi and Arab separatists. There is a concerted effort to destabilize Iran.”
The attempt by Iranian hard-liners to call the U.S.-led bluff, however, may have backfired both internationally and domestically. Western diplomats in Tehran say hard-liners grossly underestimate the effect of public opinion and mass media in Britain and the U.S.
Iran’s strident statements and use of British prisoners as propaganda tools have shocked those who advocated cautious diplomacy for addressing the dilemmas Iran poses.
Analysts say Iran did not expect that the British would go to the U.N. Security Council and rally support from European countries such as Germany.
“I do think they’ve miscalculated,” Rundle said. “Not many people trusted the current government internationally. And they’ll trust them even less now.”