A top Iran scholar who recently retired from the Pentagon has published a searing report arguing that negotiations with the Iranian regime will enhance the power of Iranian leaders rather than entice them into compromises over their nuclear program.
Harold Rhode’s report contends that U.S. policymakers have “systematically ignored” Iranian culture and history as they relate to Iran’s negotiating behavior, and that this oversight has led to catastrophic consequences.
“Our policy has been to look at what we have done wrong, and see what we can do to put it right. Iranians want to kick you when you do that,” Rhode tells Newsmax.
“It’s odious, but it is the reality in that part of the world: They respect power. They detest weakness,” says Rhode, a former Pentagon analyst.
The consequences of the U.S. failure to understand the basics of Iranian culture have been deadly, Rhode says. “The Muslim world believes America is weak, and America can be defeated.”
Seeing the feeble response of the Carter administration to the seizure of U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini “declared war on the United States, and we chose not to acknowledge it,” Rhode says.
When Ronald Reagan became president, he initially inspired fear in Iran’s leaders. “It was no coincidence” that the U.S. hostages left Iranian airspace the very minute that Reagan swore the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981, Rhode says.
“When people are afraid of you in the Middle East, they at first kowtow,” he tells Newsmax. “Then they look for opportunities to see if you are really strong.”
Within two years of taking office, Reagan made the same mistake as Jimmy Carter had by failing to respond to Iran’s terror attacks against the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in April and October 1983.
Almost 20 Americans were killed in the embassy bombing, and 241 Marines were killed in the follow-on attack. But instead of joining a French retaliatory raid against Iranian Revolutionary Guards positions in the Bekaa Valley, the United States ultimately pulled the Marines out of Lebanon in February 1984.
That sent a message of weakness to Iran that prompted it to attack us repeatedly in the ensuing years, Rhode argues.
Rhode’s report, which the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published, points out that Iranian students attacked the Russian Embassy at the same time they seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, with dramatically different results.
“They quickly left, because Moscow informed Tehran that, if the Iranians did not leave the Soviet Embassy within hours, Tehran would be bombed,” he writes.
“The only way we can handle this, like it or not, is the Russian way,” he tells Newsmax.
Since Khomeini and his acolytes seized power in 1979, he notes, “there has been almost no peep out of the Muslim world, in particular Iran, when Russia marches into Afghanistan, or even moves against its own Muslims. That’s because they’re afraid of what the Russians will do to them.”
Throughout history, Iranians have expected their leaders to be forceful, even cruel. “It is when a ruler appears weak that Iranians quickly turn on him, and look for another ruler to worship,” Rhode writes.
The conclusion for today’s policymakers Rhode draws from these historical lessons is simple, but powerful: “It is only when Iranians become convinced that either their rulers lack the resolve to do what is necessary to remain in power or a stronger power will protect them against their current tyrannical rulers that they will speak out and try to overthrow leaders.”
President Barack Obama’s approach toward Iran is a repeat of past mistakes, in which U.S. leaders have believed they could compromise with Iran or find some accommodation that would allow Iran’s leaders to save face while backing down from aggressive positions, such as developing nuclear weapons or committing terrorist atrocities.
On Aug. 4, Obama told a group of columnists at the White House that he was seeking to engage Iran’s leaders over a supposed “mutual interest” in Afghanistan in combating drug traffickers and the Taliban.
That approach is all wrong, Rhode believes.
“In Iran, compromise is seen as a sign of submission and weakness. Compromise actually brings shame on those [and on the families of those] who concede,” he writes. “Good-will and confidence-building measures are interpreted as a lack of strength or resolve. To Iranians, these measures are seen only as concessions, in the most negative connotation of the world.”
Rhode pointed to recent events in Iraq to illustrate his point.
In late 2006, the U.S. ambassador and the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq convened talks with the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, hoping to discuss a similar perceived “mutual interest” in curbing violence in that country.
At the time, Iran was supplying weapons not only to Shiite militias who opposed the Baghdad government but also to Sunni groups, including al-Qaida fighters led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who were driving the insurgency.
“From the Iranian cultural vantage point, the fact that the U.S. was willing to sit down with Iran was proof that the U.S. was weak and looking for a way out of Iraq. The Iranians responded by escalating the attacks against the U.S. inside Iraq. These attacks only subsided when the Iranians saw America show resolve militarily by responding with great force. Only then did they back down,” Rhode’s report says.
The same thing is happening today in Afghanistan, where Iran openly provides weapons to insurgents and backing the Taliban, according to U.S. military commanders.
Rhode believes that, if the United States really wants to have an impact on the behavior of the Iranian regime, or to stop the nuclear weapons, we should openly support the pro-democracy forces inside Iran.
“Regime change is the answer,” he tells Newsmax. “I’m not advocating bombing until it’s too late.”
He argues that the U.S. can take specific measures to convince the Iranian people that “a strong power will protect them” against their rulers” if they seek to overthrow them.
First, create dissent among the leaders themselves by making them believe that their rivals are talking to the Americans, to pit the various ruling factions against each other.
Next, U.S. officials should meet openly with Iranian opposition leaders.
“If the West wants to bring about a different type of regime in Iran, it must support those forces inside Iran which demonstrate by their actions that they support Western values and freedoms,” he writes.
“If the Iranians are clearly shown that the strongest powers in the West — the U.S. and its allies — support a particular leader or group, history demonstrates that Iranians will almost assuredly flock to that leader.”
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