Misreading Tehran In Washington

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

One of the more ridiculous criticisms of Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense is the claim that the government of Iran is rooting for him. The idea is that Iran’s rulers are somehow encouraged by President Obama having chosen a Secretary of Defense who has voiced concerns about the possible consequences of a U.S. attack on Iran (concerns shared, of course, by both previous Secretaries of Defense.) The fact that the sum total of evidence for this claim is one misleading CBS News headline (to a story in which the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman responded to the nomination with boilerplate language hoping for “practical changes” to U.S. foreign policy) hasn’t stopped it from hardening into the newest article of neoconservative faith.

In today’s New York Times, RAND Iran analyst Alireza Nader responds to these claims. “The Iranian regime is hardly cheering Hagel on,” Nader writes, “despite what some of his critics say.”

Yes, Hagel sounds cautious about a U.S. bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but such a campaign isn’t what keeps the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, up at night. An American strike would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy — and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.

The Iranian leadership’s real worry is not American planes but Iranian protesters. Their deepest anxieties revolve around a Persian version of Tahrir Square, a replay of the 2009 Green uprising that wasn’t ended by the regime’s violent repression. Strange as it may sound, the Islamic Republic is a lot more frightened of the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh than it is of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As such, Hagel’s nomination was greeted in Tehran with a shrug, not a sigh of relief. The Islamic Republic hardly thinks that with Hagel nominated, it’s off the nuclear hook. Iran’s leaders see U.S. “hostility” as institutionalized and systematized, not produced by partisan politics or individual appointments. As Hossein Salami, a top-ranking Revolutionary Guards officer, said of Hagel, “We view the United States as a political and ideological system driven by its strategic interests rather than by individual politicians.”

“What the Islamic Republic fears most isn’t that American officials will be blustery and belligerent,” Nader concludes. “It’s that they will be patient and pragmatic.”

The idea that Iran’s rulers are pleased by the prospect of a Secretary of Defense who is cautious about military force (and would be displeased by a Secretary of Defense who appeared less cautious) is based in a fundamental misreading of what the regime actually fears. But don’t expect the fact that President Obama’s efforts to reasonably engage with Iran have done more to isolate it than all of the Bush administration’s threats ever did to make any dent in U.S. hawks’ apparently unshakeable belief in the transformative power of bluster.