Hirsh: Iran and America, at the Brink

Is war between the United States, its allies and Iran inevitable? It certainly feels that way right now. This is a tit-for-tat escalation right out of the textbook. Since Iran's Revolutionary Guard Navy seized 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf last week, Tehran has paraded the captives before TV cameras and elicited apologies from them in a way that probably violates the Geneva Conventions (which bar humiliating treatment of prisoners). Iran's armed forces have fired off new test missiles, while George W. Bush has put on the biggest show of U.S. naval power in the Gulf in years.

British sailors have been detained before, most recently in a similar Gulf incident in 2004. But this time, Tehran shows no sign of releasing its prisoners soon. The standoff is expected to continue while the United States holds Iranian personnel inside Iraq under mysterious circumstances and British Prime Minister Tony Blair petitions the United Nations to secure his sailors' freedom, rather than talking directly with Tehran.

Blair's approach to the U.N. will only aggravate the dispute, says one international diplomat who is familiar with Tehran's thinking, who requested anonymity when speaking of such sensitive matters. After last week's second resolution against its nuclear program, Iran takes a particularly dim view of the  Security Council. Not surprisingly, Iran abruptly dropped a conciliatory offer to release the lone female prisoner, and Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, warned that the prisoners now "may face a legal path"—a clear threat to prosecute them, possibly as spies. "The British have got to come down from their high horse. They've got to work at solving this bilaterally," says the international diplomat. "They shouldn't take the higher moral ground."

A British diplomat told NEWSWEEK that those claims were "outrageous" and said London's ambassador to Iran had been meeting regularly with officials at Tehran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to gain the captives' release. (Britain declares it has global positioning satellite data that proves its patrol ships were not in Iranian waters, while Iran says the British incursions into its territory had happened no fewer than six times before.) Yet Blair declared Thursday he would not negotiate. And now the British leader, who reportedly told Bush months ago that he opposed war with Iran, may have little choice but to back one.

The savage rhetoric between the two sides evokes the kind of irreconcilable differences that have paved the path to war in the past. Revolutionary fervor still prevails in both capitals—inside Iran, to spread jihadism; inside the Bush administration, to sow the sort of regime change that will end this jihadism. As Henry Kissinger wrote recently in an essay: "So long as Iran views itself as a crusade rather than a nation, a common interest will not emerge from negotiations."

Are Western and Iranian interests really so irreconcilable? No. Believe it or not, there is still time to rediscover that. Even though the U.S. Navy has worried for years that Iranian Revolutionary Guards zooming around in Gulf boats—they were first deployed there during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war—could "swarm our ships," as a former senior U.S. official put it, the sailors who were seized were British, after all, not American. Some Iran observers say this was quite calculated. "Historically, the Iranians are very, very cautious about not going after Americans directly," says Washington-based scholar Trita Parsi. During tense confrontations in the past—the U.S. shoot-down of an Iranian airliner in 1988, for example—Tehran has sometimes proved notably restrained in its reaction.

So this is still brinkmanship, not war. And there is still considerable evidence that neither side wants to leap into the abyss. Let's remember the many ways in which Iran—at least before the 2005 election of the radical populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—was remarkably agreeable, even helpful to Washington after 9/11. And this cooperative attitude—which belied a generation's worth of enmity since the 1979 Islamic revolution—was in evidence under the same Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who last week issued a veiled threat to retaliate against the West (the British boats were seized days later). There is solid evidence that, from 2001-2004, Iran helped to set up the Afghan government, restrained unhelpful warlords in that country, proposed broad-based talks on everything from nukes to Mideast peace and even agreed to discuss the return of downed U.S. fliers in the event of an Iraq war. Bush's former top negotiator with Iran, Jim Dobbins, recalls an encounter in March 2002 with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general at one of the many U.S.-Iran meetings over Afghanistan. "He said they were prepared to join us in training the Afghan national army. I said, 'That's fine if you're talking about building barracks, and so forth. But when it comes to training and equipping, we might have conflicting doctrines.' He laughed and said, 'We're still using the manual you left behind in 1979'."

But on both sides right now, nobody seems to remember those gestures, and nobody seems interested in probing that crucial middle ground. "The noble art of losing face will one day save the human race," Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. inspector, once quipped about diplomacy. That's not happening here: neither side is willing to be seen to make the first move, to "lose face" in the delicate diplomatic dance. The problem is that the United States and Britain, along with their partners France and Germany, have successfully created a huge, powerful machine of coercion against Iran—economic, political, diplomatic. And now they don't quite know what to do with it. Similarly, the Iranians are divided about how to react, with Ahmadinejad and now apparently Khamenei himself counseling defiance while Tehran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs tries to find a way back to the table. Yes, pressure works. But exerting too much of it for too long, without offering the carrot of conciliation that can encourage moderates, usually gives the edge back to the hardliners. It is moments like these that call for special envoys. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a major Washington think tank, says that the West's pressure—without-concession approach has grown so intense that even moderate forces inside Tehran figure if they relent now, it will only send a message to the U.S. hardliners that coercion alone works. "They think that if they compromise right now in response to pressure, it's not going to strengthen [Under Secretary of State] Nick Burns's policy for more diplomacy, it's going to strengthen [hardline Vice President] Dick Cheney's message policy for more pressure," Sajadpour says.

If Tony Blair refuses to negotiate over this incident, and the Americans don't step in, then the tenuous signs of diplomatic life that were beginning to appear before last week's hostage incident will likely wither and die. Earlier in March, Tehran made a big concession by appearing at an Iraq regional conference without asking for up-front concessions—such as the release of Iranian operatives that it claims are mere diplomats. But if the newest Gulf crisis drags on much longer, the expected follow-up conference on Iraq probably won't go forward. Brinkmanship can sometimes set the table. But people have to be willing to sit down. With the West and the mullahs glaring at each other across a widening gulf of mutual mistrust, that seems unlikely to happen now.