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.
“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.