Iran’s Islamic leaders, faced with an August 31 United Nations deadline to give up their nuclear program, came back nine days early with a dodge. Tehran insists on its right to develop nuclear power — for peaceful purposes, the mullahs artfully say — but it wants to continue talking about ways of making its plans acceptable to the U.N. and the West.
America’s initial response is, as the mullahs hoped, to take Iran’s dodge as a “no” and to push for sanctions. Nothing could be better from the mullahs’ point of view. At the very least, they think, Washington will succeed in uniting its partners, the Five Plus One — the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany — around a mild sanctions regime that leaves Iran relatively unharmed and turns it into a martyr in the broader Islamic world and beyond. More likely, America will press hard for a harsh response, alienating Russia and China. Iran then moves from a position of isolation into a bipolar confrontation: America and its allies on one side, Iran and its allies on the other. At best, from Tehran’s point of view, America will go for an all-out confrontation, compounding its Iraqi misadventure, and end up standing alone against the world.
Tehran’s reply proves once again that too many Americans don’t understand what we’re up against in Iran. We think we’re going head to head on a football field, while they’re playing chess.