Decoding Iran's conflicting signals
February 24th, 2012
04:53 PM ET

Decoding Iran's conflicting signals

Editor's Note: Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation

By Geneive Abdo - Special to CNN

In Iran’s ongoing conflict with the United States and Israel, Tehran is often blamed for sending mixed signals. On the same day last week, for example, Iran boasted that it can now enrich uranium at faster speeds at its nuclear facility outside the holy Shiite city of Qom, while officials also announced that Iran had sent a letter to Catherine Ashton, the European Union policy chief, expressing a willingness to go back to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

These two actions might seem contradictory, but actually Iran’s short-term strategy is clear: Iran’s wants to talk now, but from a position of strength. For the most part, this has been Iran’s strategy during periods of negotiation with the West.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would not have it any other way. He has believed since the Revolution in 1979 – as did Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - that the United States’ ultimate aim is to topple the Islamic regime. This narrative has driven Iran’s decisions over its nuclear program for many years - not only during times of increased tensions with the West. Despite this never-ending preparedness for war, some U.S. Department of Defense officials have wisely concluded that Khamenei has not made the decision to turn Iran’s nuclear weapons capability into a bomb.

Khamenei must be judicious, not only to avoid a war, but to protect what support he maintains in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. While the IRGC is a diverse institution, there have been two major shifts in recent years. The Guards, as well as other Iranian institutions, have shifted Iran’s policy toward the West in a less compromising direction. This was a reaction to the conciliatory presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also has support within the IRGC, Iran has become determined to chart its own course in the world, particularly in the Middle East, irrespective of the West’s demands.

It is important to understand Iran’s strategy of proving its strength before agreeing to negotiate in the upcoming talks likely to be held in Istanbul. This is the reason, for example, that at the same time Iran’s Foreign Miniser Alki Akbar Salehi offered conciliatory tones to the world, an influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Commander asserted that military exercises of Iran’s armed forces were underway from the Persian Gulf to specific provinces inside Iran.

Salehi said:

“Tehran is not talking about the closure of the Strait of Horuz, because the Strait is very important to Iran and many other countries in the world….Iran is a civilized country with a rich history.”

At the same time, Major General Mohammad Ali Jaffair, Commander of the IRGC said:

“The grandeur and mightiness of the country's Armed Forces is a deterrent element against enemies' recent aggressions and threats.... These maneuvers are defensive strategies on the shores of the Persian Gulf.... Transferring the experiences of the Iran-Iraq War to the younger generation and combining it with the experiences of the young Basiji forces have been among the main objectives of the drills."

Therefore, as Iran prepares for war, it is also ready to see if diplomacy can work. Yes, Iran has done little more than disappoint and frustrate the United States and the Europeans in previous negotiations over its nuclear program. And yes, it is highly unlikely Iran will agree to stop enriching its uranium, which has been the cause for the talks to break down in the past.

But in examining the only alternative to talks - a strike - one most consider the proverbial “morning after.”

Even if an attack is limited, Khamenei’s narrative will have been realized. He will view it as the first of many attempts for regime change. Iran would likely never again allow IAEA inspectors back into the country and its nuclear program would become completely concealed from the world. According to nuclear expert Ali Vaez at the Federation of American Scientists, “Iran’s nuclear program is extensive, widely dispersed and much more established. The underlying fuel cycle knowledge in Iran cannot be wiped out with an attack.”

An attack would also undermine any potential popular uprising. Destabilizing the regime is highly unlikely to produce an Arab Spring in Iran. The amorphous opposition disagrees on the fundamentals, such as whether there should be regime change or a reform of the current system.

Iran’s decision-making process has always been a complex affair. Their seemingly conflicting signals in times of turmoil, however, make perfect sense.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Geneive Abdo.

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Topics: Iran

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. rr


    February 24, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  2. George Patton

    It appears that the Germans need to elect a new Chancellor to replace this Washington-loving Angela Merkel. A Chancellor who will talk in ernest to the Iranians and the Israelis and diffuse the tensions between Iran and the West. This desperately needs to be done but who will do it? Not the Aussies nor the French as all they do is sit around awaiting orders from Washington D.C. as the rest of the world suffers!!!

    February 24, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Are you sure that a different German Chancellor would make Iranian leaders to stop developing nuclear weapons, recognize Israel and ask for peace negotiations? Somehow I doubt it...

      February 25, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
  3. hass

    Why does Abdo see some sort of contradiction between Iran's desire to talk, and its announcement of continuing enrichment. Iran has made it crystal clear that it will never give up enrichment, period. It is a sovereign right, after all, and perfectly legal.

    February 24, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      I have to agree that there is no contradiction between the willingness of Iran to talk while continuing to develop nuclear weapons. The purpose of talks is to gain time until the leaders of Iran will be able to announce that they have a bomb and that now the world will have to listen to NUCLEAR Iran and do what Iranian leaders say or else...

      February 25, 2012 at 6:38 am | Reply
  4. 100% ETHIO-Nostradamus

    When all the Medias around the World juggling news over news and the World leaders are running around to come to One conclusion, War, the U.S.Armies the only one who feel the pain, while they are closely watching the news and waiting the order from their Commander in Chief.

    I do feel their pain. Honestly, most of them who were survived and injured from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, can't find jobs in AMERICA!!! The Companies, American Companies didn't hire them!!! The Wealthy Americans, whose businesses, interests and lives that has been protected by U.S. Soldiers, didn't hire them!!! Why we are not honouring the American Soldiers?!!?? Are we letting them down in front of American enemies, that U.S Soldiers fought them??!! Didn't these caused enormous Psychological pain, beside the financial problems???!!!

    I read and I posted on this blog sight, for a long time. But, I never read anything that could support the returned American Soldiers from the war zone, whether the American Companies are willing to hire them or not. I myself seen few young American Soldiers, looking for a minimum wage jobs and afraid and avoid to put their Military career in their Resumes, to avoid stereotype and backlash.

    Now, all eyes are again on American Soldiers.

    February 25, 2012 at 6:28 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The author maintained: "Iran’s decision-making process has always been a complex affair. Their seemingly conflicting signals in times of turmoil, however, make perfect sense".
    The Revolutionary Guards have influence in Iran's political world and the conservative clerics play an important part in political life in Iran. It's widely known that a power struggle unfolds within the ruling bloc – between the supreme leader Khamenei and the president Ahmadinejad on the one side as well as the pragmatic and the conservative forces in the cabinet and parliament on the other. it's doubtful if everybody shares the same view as Khamenei that "United States’ ultimate aim is to topple the Islamic regime".

    February 25, 2012 at 6:41 am | Reply
  6. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected,Mr.Geneive Abdo Garu,In my verdict Iran having some capabillities both nuclear strength and war strength. These two strengths had digested before 15years.And Two mager contrys fully supported to IRAN. In this situation bilateral matters negotiate is very importent. and one more thing, Present tremors, seems shortly will began THIRD WORLD WAR. If not negotiable.

    February 25, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
  7. Rick

    Israel's wanton desire to attack Iran is misguided and evinces a lack of strong leadership in Israel. Israel's leadership leads from a a position of weakness instead of strength. They portray Israel as a victim that must retaliate just like an abused wife that wants forgiveness after being arrested for killing her abusive husband. Instead, Israel should interpret this situation in a position of strength by proclaiming to its people and the world : "Its business as usual because Iran having the "Bomb" is no threat to us or anyone, and that Israel is still strong regardless of its neighbors perspectives. However, Israel instead chooses to cry like a addled school boy in his first day to school. Israel needs to grow up if it truly wants to be part of the "Big Boys".

    February 25, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      So you're demanding Israeli leaders to LIE to their people, to the rest of the world and to themselves claiming that a bunch of fanatic mass murderers trying to get nuclear weapons and use them against Israel is "no threat"? and you're calling this idiocy a "position of strength"???

      If my neighbor was running around with a gun yelling that he is going to kill me and my family I WOUND NOT declare that it is "business as usual"... I would tell him and the rest of my neighbors that I would fight back if attacked and I would call the police and ask them to restrain the mad neighbor.

      February 26, 2012 at 7:23 am | Reply
  8. Robert

    You ever notice how no one in Iran can find a razor? Everyone walks around with a 5 o'clock shadow on their face-even their president and military officers. Not very professional, in my opinion. If you're going to grow a beard, then fine. Grow one. Either than or learn to shave. Get rid of this half-way thing. It makes you look like a bum.

    February 25, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  9. gabe

    Jeremy Bernstein of the New Yorker wrote an interesting e-single on Iran's developing nuclear program. Worth reading, for those interested:

    February 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    we all should back up and figure out how to solve things peacefully and calmly and inteligently THAT SETS AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL TO SEE! IRAN SHAME ON YOU!

    February 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  11. iran=syria=hizboallah=shiia=terrorsists=evil

    ...................we can not decode evil lies....evil always deseve people, thos evil muslims in iran the evil shiia cult are the worse kind of muslims they are actually not muslims, they arte pure evil killers, use islam as means for money power and se......x called motaa...attack iran now before it is too late , attack iran and syria will fall and all other minor evil will fall.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  12. Henry

    Iran is playing a successful psychological game in order to buy more time necessary for the ultimate bob making. Most will take the bait because the "conflicting signals" is designed to confuse and give the fools and appeasers some sense of "hope". As long as there is "hope" there is enough reason to give peace a chance with more patient and more "dialogues" hence more time. People offense fail to look into the true nature, the hatred and determination of the kill all infidels at all cost.

    February 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  13. ,,,,,iran=syria=hizboallah=shiia=terrorsists=evil

    make no mistake when iran get the bomb they will use it..i was one of them before.. the bible , torah and quran tell us that the antichrist will be born and rise from iran and they will go to syria and kill many people until he get killed in palestine near bab al ned at armagadon area

    February 27, 2012 at 1:44 am | Reply
  14. Tina L. Moore - Airwnd Cloud DeadArt

    In the deception of "wait until' this is the truth of all that is in the preparation of the continum of those in the realms who currently speaks of the phrase (Satan never sleeps) in the idea that is already in proven will in and out of still until such time is allow. There will be new term regarding the First Iran of this courty where the governance of there idea of helping the helpless is in mind still.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  15. Paul Felix Schott

    Miss led Middle Easterners have threatened to kill and take measures against Christians sounds like bullying bad boys. That their Mother and Father never showed them right from wrong. All the good on Earth want peace Not War. If you cannot have your way you are going to hurt someone this sounds like a mad men to most of the world.

    If someone really cares for them, give them a Bible with red letter print. That is a red letter edition words that were spoken by are Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. With a Pray for them the lost maybe they will be saved, and not go to hell.

    Remember for over a Thousand years you have taken you life at risk from the
    wicked for carrying a Bible. They have burned the Bible in public many times they have cut off the head of anyone carrying one many a times. They have bombed many a Christian Church, Killing many.

    The Persecution of Christians in the Middle East has gone on for over two thousand years.

    The Leaders of many Christian groups have criticizes Muslim leaders and Leaders of governments for failing to intervene after series of deadly attacks on Christians and their Churches in many countries around the World, each Christmas.

    Killing at least 35 Christians Christmas day Church, Nigerian 2011. Killing over 20 Christians New Year's Eve mass Egypt 2011. 50 killed Christians at a Catholic Cathedral
    Baghdad 2010. Over 200 injured Christians Imbaba region by Cairo 2011. The list goes on
    and on and has for many years now. Have you for got so easy many American's like Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. that was kidnapped and then beheaded in Saudi Arabia in 2004. While thousands gathered and prayed for the wicked to let him go, Till all heard the sound coming from THE PATRIOTIC TRUMPET PLAYER, Monica D. Key Lindbergh playing taps.

    How many Muslim Churches have been attacked or bombed while they are in there
    church by Christians? Answer 0

    The World wants Peace not more wars.

    If you think the wicked want peace read this then go look at some of their web sites!

    There is a video on official Hamas TV that calls for Allah to all kill Jews, Christians,
    Communists and any of their supporters they can find. This video asks Allah to "count
    them and kill them to the last one, and don't leave even one."

    Hamas TV. You will have Air mail incoming very soon. It is Very Sad you do not want
    peace and ask for WAR.

    If you think or believed that Israel-Iran relations will improve or Iran with The
    Persecution of Christians World Wide.

    Just read this

    Iranian President Mohammad Khatami,
    called Israel an
    "illegal state and a "parasite,"

    The Iranian Chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps,
    "The IRGC"
    Mohammad Ali Jafari
    said "Israel was within the reach of Iranian missiles".
    IRGC is listed by the U.S. Government and our CIA as a terrorist organization.
    With many ties to an assassination campaigns in the
    1980s and early 1990s with paid mercenaries from many countries
    that targeted many opponents, and rigged elections.

    December 2000
    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei he has called Israel many things even went as far as to say it is a
    "cancerous tumor" that should be removed from the region.
    "Act Of War" against Israel.

    JULY 2008
    Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki said "that Israel was
    not capable of an attack".

    JULY 2008
    Ahmadinejad.....he said, "The Iranian nation never recognized Israel
    and will never ever recognize it.

    Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei he stated, "It is incorrect, irrational,
    pointless and nonsense to say that we are friends of Israeli people...
    we are on a collision course with the occupiers of Palestine and the
    occupiers are the Zionist regime. This is the position of our regime,
    our revolution and our people."

    February 7, 2010, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said
    "the destruction of Israel was assured" According to the daily newspaper Teheran Times.
    Another "Act Of War" against Israel.

    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei,
    said "that if Israel attacked Iran it would be destroyed within a week"

    Iranian Funding of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah
    A mural in Tehran, Iran. The mural depicts the emblem of Lebanon's Hezbollah,
    and quotes the founder of The Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, saying:
    "Israel must be destroyed."
    Another "Act Of War" against them.

    Iran has been for years supplying weapons and political support to Hamas an
    organization that is committed to the destruction of Israel by Jihad According
    to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, "Hamas is funded
    By Iran.
    It has claimed it has been financed by peace loving donations, but the donations
    they get are nothing at all like what it receives from Iran for its
    Wicked Deeds and acts. All the Big Bankers of the World can see this.
    Another "Act Of War" against Israel.

    Iran is also supplying another enemy of Israel, the well know terrorist organization
    Hezbollah with more then what you would call just a substantial amount of financial
    support and weapons, explosives and training of how to use them and political,
    diplomatic, and organizational aid while persuading Hezbollah to take wicked actions
    against Israel. Hezbollah's 1985 manifesto listed its four main goals as "Israel's
    final departure from Lebanon as a prelude to its final obliteration" According to
    reports released in February 2010, Hezbollah has received $400 million dollars from
    Iran. That the World knows about.
    Another Clear "Act Of War" against Israel.

    October 11, 2011 the CIA AND THE FBI Of the United States Of America stopped a
    terrorist plot by the Iranian Government Leaders that included (bombing the Israeli
    "as well as Saudi"
    Embassies in Washington, DC and Buenos Aires).
    All Nations involved do claim this as
    An "Act Of War" against them.

    Can you carry a Bible in Iran without them trying to kill you.
    Devil at war with GOD.

    Israel Will Strike Iran, British Intelligence is now saying.

    The 43rd President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser and Chief Foreign Policy
    Adviser Stephen Hadley is now Warning the world. That there clearly exists a very high
    risk to say the least that Iran and the United States very soon will most likely end up
    in a military conflict. As the deterioration of views and political relations between
    Iran and many other countries as Iran Leader acts more like a little kid. Making all
    the Middle East more unstable.

    With growing reports out of Israel that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely,
    former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Ron Kessler of Newsmax's in an one
    on one interview that she has no doubts in her mind that Israel will take the necessary
    actions to stop Iran's mullahs from making or getting Nuclear Weapons. Condoleezza Rice
    has a book, Called "No Higher Honor" A Memoir of My Years in Washington," reveals her
    insights into the war against Al-Qaida, what really happened in Iraq, and the real rising
    threat of Iran.
    From her work as the National Security Adviser with President George W. Bush in his first
    term before succeeding Colin Powell to become Secretary of State in his second term.

    May our Lord Jesus Christ and GOD the Father that is in Heaven,
    Guide and Watch over us.

    In this time of TRIBULATION, Strengthen your Faith, and encourage
    all to pray for their souls. The strong in the word of our Lord will Now
    Help the World and be the disciples of our Lord's Word.

    United We Will Always Stand That
    In GOD We Trust
    True Patriots

    The Lord's Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    Further diligence is required stay on your guard and watch. The LORD’s Amy will come soon enough.

    GOD Bless You and Your Love ones
    Give thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ every day.

    Luke 21:20-22

    IRAN ... The World is going to Renewable Energy with all the SUNLIGHT we get SOLAR Energy would be very easy to do hear. Do you think the rest of the world will see what we are really doing building more Reactors then we could ever use in a country this size?

    February 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  16. decaptchers

    Usually I don't learn post on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing taste has been amazed me. Thank you, quite great post.

    April 24, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply

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