Ron Paul Vindicated on Iran (Unfortunately)

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A week ago Ron Paul tried to convey how the ever-tightening sanctions on Iran--which may soon include an embargo on its oil--look from an Iranian point of view: It's as if China were to blockade the Gulf of Mexico, he said--"an act of war".

This is sheer conjecture; Ron Paul is no expert on Iran. But now someone who does have relevant credentials has weighed in, and the picture he paints is disturbingly reminiscent of the one Paul painted. It suggests we may be closer to war than most people realize.

Vali Nasr, in addition to being a highly respected expert on the Middle East, belongs to a family that, according to Lobelog's sources, has "a direct line into Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's inner circle." In a Bloomberg View piece that is getting a lot of attention, Nasr reports that "Iran has interpreted sanctions that hurt its oil exports, which account for about half of government revenue, as acts of war." Indeed, the Iranian leadership now sees U.S. policy as "aimed at regime change."

In this light, Iran's recent threats--notably that it will close the Strait of Hormuz in response to an oil embargo--shouldn't be dismissed, says Nasr. "The regime in Tehran is ready for a fight."

The good news is that Nasr thinks war can be averted. The bad news is that to accomplish this America and other Western powers need to "imagine how the situation looks from Tehran"--not exactly a favorite pastime among American politicians these days.

Still, if only for the intellectual exercise, let's do try to imagine what things look like from Iran's point of view.

Iran's nuclear scientists have recently evinced a tendency to get assassinated, and a mysterious explosion at a military facility happened to kill the general in charge of Iran's missile program. These things were almost certainly done by Israel, possibly with American support. If you were Iranian, would you consider assassinations on your soil grounds for attacking the suspected perpetrators?

Well, we know that some notable Americans think assassinating people on American soil is punishable by war. After the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi Ambassador in Washington was uncovered, Bill Kristol (whom you may recall from our previous run-up to a disastrous war) recommended that we attack Iran.

But I'm guessing that if I tried this Iran-America analogy out on Kristol, he might detect asymmetries. For example: We're us, whereas they're just them.

Underlying our Iran strategy is the assumption that if we keep ratcheting up the pressure, the regime will eventually say uncle. A problem with this premise is that throughout human history rulers have shown an aversion to being seen by their people as surrendering. Indeed, when you face dissent, as the Iranian regime does, there's actually a certain appeal to confronting an external threat, since confrontation tends to consolidate domestic support. As Nasr puts it, "the ruling clerics are responding with shows of strength to boost solidarity at home."

This doesn't mean Iran's rulers haven't wanted to make a deal. But it does mean the deal would have to leave these rulers with a domestically plausible claim to have benefited from it, and it also means these leaders can't afford to be seen begging for the deal. When President Ahmadinejad visited New York last year, he gave reporters unmistakable signals that he wanted to negotiate, but the Obama administration chose to ignore them. After Ahmadinejad "went home empty handed," reports Nasr, power increasingly shifted to Iranians who argued for confrontation over diplomacy.

Even so, Iran's foreign minister made another appeal to re-open talks only days ago, suggesting that they be held in Turkey. But, as the New York Times reported, western nations interpreted this overture "as an effort by Iran to buy time to continue its program." Got that? If Iranians refuse to negotiate it means they don't want a deal, and if they ask to negotiate it means they don't want a deal.

Nasr says the tightening of the screws is making Iran increasingly determined to get nuclear weapons--not to start a war, but to prevent one. Having seen what happened to Muammar Qaddafi, says Nasr, Iran's leaders worry that foreign powers would "feel safe enough to interfere in the affairs of a non-nuclear-armed state."

This is the kind of thing Ron Paul presumably had in mind when he said Iran may want nuclear weapons in order to get some "respect." But hey, what does Ron Paul know?

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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