Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

In Iran, nothing is quite what it seems

Recently, my CNAS colleague Greg McGowan, who is helping with research on my next book, eluded the Smokies on I-95 to go to zoom down to Quantico and retrieve some obscure documents about the Korean War, among other things. Being a policy nerd, while he was there he dropped by a lecture on Iranian foreign ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Recently, my CNAS colleague Greg McGowan, who is helping with research on my next book, eluded the Smokies on I-95 to go to zoom down to Quantico and retrieve some obscure documents about the Korean War, among other things. Being a policy nerd, while he was there he dropped by a lecture on Iranian foreign policy -- for CNAS staffers, that's like seeing Kanye West do a sultry duet with Angelina Jolie.

By Gregory McGowan
Best Defense bureau of the hard facts about soft power

Too often, Washington crafts foreign policy based on its own confined rational pretenses, thinking that if we do this, then that will be the outcome. But what happens when we are dealing with a regime or an organization whose reality -- its so-called "rational compass" -- is calibrated completely different from our own? This is the scenario Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy sees with Iran.

Recently, my CNAS colleague Greg McGowan, who is helping with research on my next book, eluded the Smokies on I-95 to go to zoom down to Quantico and retrieve some obscure documents about the Korean War, among other things. Being a policy nerd, while he was there he dropped by a lecture on Iranian foreign policy — for CNAS staffers, that’s like seeing Kanye West do a sultry duet with Angelina Jolie.

By Gregory McGowan
Best Defense bureau of the hard facts about soft power

Too often, Washington crafts foreign policy based on its own confined rational pretenses, thinking that if we do this, then that will be the outcome. But what happens when we are dealing with a regime or an organization whose reality — its so-called "rational compass" — is calibrated completely different from our own? This is the scenario Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy sees with Iran.

The point of departure for our strategy should be the unconventional nature of the Iranian regime, Eisenstadt said in a recent talk at the Marine Corps University.

Here is how he suggested we respond to its reliance on soft-power tactics:

1. We must, if only momentarily, set aside our reality and enter theirs. "If one’s own perceptions guide their actions, then their perceptions become reality," Eisenstadt said. The Islamic Republic of Iran was forged by revolutionaries determined to export their brand of fundamental Shiite Islam throughout the region. To a great degree, the theocrats in charge today abide by that precedent. This means that the regime’s main consideration must be the interest of the state, as the survival of "Iran’s Islam" is dependent upon the survival of the regime.

2. Understand that Iranian politics are guided by strong cultural undertones. One of the most significant Persian traditions is their capacity to endure: to fight a war of attrition. To perfect the doctrine of resistance. To achieve victory not by seizing land or suffocating an enemy’s resources, but by waging a psychological battle until the enemy is so demoralized that he throws in the towel. Say what you want about them, the government in Tehran chooses its battles wisely. They fight in arenas they know they can win. They are the soft-power maestros, waging their physical battles through proxy militias (the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, Hamas) on enemy ground, complemented by calculated policies (the nuclear program, anti-Semitic rhetoric, manipulating Iraqi politics, the list goes on…) from within. In this context, Iran doesn’t necessarily need to physically possess a nuclear weapon to use the nuclear program to its advantage. The regime has used the psychological dimension of its nuclear pursuit to increase its soft power and frustrate its foes with a policy of ambiguity. This practice of "strategic patience," as he calls it, is a culturally engrained Persian ideal, permeating the country’s religious and literary traditions.

3. Eisenstadt put forth a very strong case for Washington’s need to recalibrate its strategic compass so that it can fight soft power with soft power. We must enter Iran’s world in order to play this game, and upon entering this parallel universe, we must remember that, "In Iran, nothing is as it seems." This means, first and foremost, that intelligence operations should be dramatically increased, he said. We must use intelligence to hit Tehran where it hurts: sabotage its nuclear program through cyberwarfare, defeat its proxy militias by being one step ahead of them, and support the majority of Iranians who are willing to fight for freedom and dignity. Accounting for Tehran’s tremendous emphasis on unconventional warfare will allow Washington to craft a strategy that takes a vital step in the necessary direction of understanding the adversary, so that we may more effectively address the challenge ahead. Only once we enter their arena do we give ourselves a shot to win.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: Iran

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