This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, May 27, 2006
While some in Washington still talk of "preemptive war" against "rogue states," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is practicing what could be labelled "preemptive diplomacy."
The rules of his game are simple.
The first is to have a store of new and increasingly provocative ideas, to throw at anyone who might think of offering a diplomatic solution to whatever problem is at hand.
The second rule of the game is to puncture any trial balloon that a putative interlocutor might send up before it has risen above the ground. The aim is to prevent any possible compromise formula from even entering the so-called diplomatic channels.
The third rule is that, when, and if, you are forced to consider the idea of a compromise, to insist on methods of implementation that will leave you the sole judge of whether or not it comes into effect.
One example of Ahmadinejad's preemptive diplomacy is his rejection of a European Union offer to provide the Islamic Republic with a most advanced nuclear power network to complement the Russian-built, and technologically dubious, plant at Hellieh near Bushehr. All that Teheran has to do in exchange for the gift is to give up its actual or future plans to build nuclear weapons.
The rejection of the EU offer is even more surprising because the Islamic Republic claims that it does not intend to build nuclear bombs. So why reject an offer that only demands that you do not do what you say you will never be doing anyway?
ANOTHER EXAMPLE of Ahmadinejad's preemptive diplomacy came a few weeks ago when he rejected a Russian offer to provide Iran with enriched uranium needed for the life span of the Hellieh plant, which is, for the moment at least, the only nuclear power station under construction in the Islamic Republic. As an additional incentive, Moscow was prepared to include Iranian scientists and technicians in the uranium enrichment program that would be set up on Russian territory specifically for Hellieh.
Ahmadinejad shot down that idea before it could take off.
Yet another example of the Islamic Republic's "preemptive diplomacy" is Teheran's rejection of ideas aired by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) even before they were officially submitted. One idea is for Teheran to declare a moratorium on uranium enrichment until "all questions of interest to all sides concerned" are addressed.
Once again, there is no logical reason to reject a demand from neighbors who have gone out of their way not to gang up against the Islamic Republic in this deepening crisis. As things stand, there are no nuclear power stations in the Islamic Republic and thus no immediate need for enriched uranium. The Hellieh plant, which would need nuclear fuel, is unlikely to be completed before the end of this year. Even then, Russia, which is building the plant, has already contracted to provide it with fuel for the first 10 years of its life span of 37 to 40 years. In other words, the Islamic Republic does not need enriched uranium for fuel for at least a decade.
The latest example of Ahmadinejad's "preemptive diplomacy" came last Monday when he rejected a suggestion, made by some European and American politicians and former officials, that the Islamic Republic give up its enrichment program in exchange for "security guarantees" from the United States, the European Union, Russia and China.
Advocates of "security guarantees" for the Islamic Republic include such eminent figures as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and prominent Republican Senator Richard Lugar among others. Their model for dealing with the Islamic Republic is roughly based on president John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy provided the Castro regime with "security guarantees," amounting to a life insurance, in exchange for Moscow's accord to remove missiles it had installed in Cuba.
It is now clear that the Soviets brought the missiles precisely to obtain "security guarantees" from Kennedy and make sure that the US would not support another Bay of Pigs-style operation against Castro. The episode represented a major political and diplomatic coup for Castro and his then patron, the Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev.
Similar "security guarantees" to the Islamic Republic, this time coming from all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, would amount to an even stronger life insurance policy for a regime faced with mounting opposition at home and growing isolation abroad. Such guarantees would also remove much of the doubt that hangs over key sectors of Iran's economy with a single stroke.
AND, YET, Ahmadinejad has decided to reject the very idea even before it has been formulated into a concrete proposal.
What could be the logic behind Ahmadinejad's "preemptive diplomacy"? One answer is that the Islamic leader may be inspired by practices in Persian bazaars that are based on the assumption that whatever offer is made in any bargain is suspect because it may be a trick to avoid an even better offer.
Reviewing the events of the past year or so Ahmadinejad cannot but observe that by sticking to his guns he has received better and better offers across the line. The Europeans are offering him what they were not even prepared to consider in negotiations with his predecessor president Muhammad Khatami. Hassan Ruhani, the mullah who handled the negotiations with the EU under Khatami, says that he would have been in seventh heaven had the Europeans offered him what they now offer Ahmadinejad.
As for "security guarantees," Ahmadinejad knows that successive US administrations refused to consider them as advance payment for normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic. Now that so many prominent American personalities are prepared to promote the idea, shouldn't Ahmadinejad wonder whether he could secure even more concessions?
Would he not be tempted to wait-out President George W. Bush in the hope that his successor would offer what Albright, Brzezinski and Lugar are advocating?
The real problem with the Islamic Republic now is that Ahmadinejad, unlike his predecessors, is convinced that, backed by the "Hidden Imam," he can win across the line without making any concessions. The chorus of appeasers in Europe and the US confirm him in his dangerous belief. The message that Ahmadinejad can get more and more by offering less and less has already crushed the realists in Teheran who know that his policy of persistent provocation could lead to war. The more one tries to appease Ahmadinejad the less he will be appeased.