You can practically hear the laughter from Tehran.
By a combination of weaving, bobbing, feinting, parrying, lying, deceiving, bribing, threatening, blustering, winking, delaying, hiding, flaunting, and strutting, Iran's leaders believe they've run circles around the West.
Sad to say, they may not be entirely wrong.
Before our very eyes, they've gone from no nuclear program to a full-fledged effort. Sure, there have been fits and starts, but the general thrust is forward, and there's been no stopping them. From a few dozen spinning centrifuges to thousands, the capacity to enrich uranium has been growing.
And with it, for all the world to see, Iran's military capacity, including its ballistic missile technology, only increases in strength.
So far, every theory of how to deal with Iran has failed.
In the 1990s, the Europeans trumpeted "critical dialogue" with Iran. That proved a joke. The dialogue was about lucrative business. The criticism, such as it was, had no impact on commerce, so it meant nothing to Iran.
At the same time, the Clinton administration sought to improve ties with Tehran. Travel to Iran was encouraged in the belief that people-to-people contact could send a positive signal. Wrestlers went to a sports competition in Iran, hoping to replicate the U.S.-China "ping-pong diplomacy" of another era. Iran, however, was unmoved by the gestures.
In 2002, Iran was found to have hidden nuclear enrichment facilities. The EU took on the challenge of negotiating with Tehran. Years passed and the EU had little to show for its efforts, other than countless flights, meetings, and empty declarations.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration kept Iran at arm's length, issuing warnings and threats. Then, for a brief moment, just after the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran must have been worried, wondering if it might be the next target.
But it wasn't long before the tables were turned. Not only had Iran lost all fear of American power, but it saw a historic chance to gain influence in Iraq through the majority Shii'a population and America's increasing post-invasion challenges.
Washington continued to sound tough, but Tehran saw through it. The U.S. was already engaged on two fronts -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and didn't have the appetite, much less the support, for a third.
One potential danger for Iran came from the U.S. Treasury Department's determined efforts to cut it off from global financial markets and discourage major companies from doing business with it. That effort proved quite robust and chalked up major successes.
Still, from the Iranian viewpoint, the pressure could somehow be handled.
For every bank or multinational that pulled out of the Iranian arena, another presumably could be found to take its place. Greed is a powerful motivating force around the world, and the Iranians have been prepared to exploit it. So is solidarity, and Iran has found those who, for reasons of pro-Iranian or anti-Western thinking, have been ready to help it. And deception is yet another tool in the Iranian kit. It has developed a global network of front companies, dummy corporations, and cooperative banks.
Israel has been another worrisome factor for Iran, perhaps the most consistent. Iranian leaders ascribe all kinds of (demonically) powerful attributes to Israel and the Jews. And indeed, from time to time, acts of sabotage, with no acknowledged authors, have complicated the Iranian nuclear program.
Yet, even President Bush, seen as a close friend of Israel, refused Israeli requests for bunker-busting bombs and the right to fly over U.S.-controlled Iraq.
Lurking in the back of the Iranian mind surely must have been a fear that oil-importing nations would one day wake up and take steps to reduce their dependence on oil and gas. But, again, Tehran has been lucky.
The U.S. had a unique opportunity to do exactly that after 9/11, when the nation would have followed an appeal from Washington. But alas, there was no appeal. Instead, Americans continued to drive their gas-guzzling Hummers, Escalades, Tahoes, and Suburbans, seemingly indifferent to the geopolitical implications of their choices.
Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indian economies took off, fueling still greater demand for energy resources. And as oil prices went through the roof, Iranian coffers were filled.
With the advent of the Obama administration in Washington, U.S. policy on Iran took a different tack. The earlier American approach of isolation hadn't worked. The extended hand, alongside sanctions, became a new watchword. After 14 months, it's safe to say that's had no effect, either.
This sharp turn led to an ambitious offer to enrich Iranian uranium abroad and return it for use in the Tehran Research Reactor. That went nowhere, though valuable months passed as Iran choreographed its multi-phased response.
So now the focus is on ramping up sanctions.
Mind you, more than two years have passed since the third sanctions resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council. During those 24 months, Iran has thumbed its nose at the earlier sanctions resolutions, other UN measures calling for cooperation, various "firm" deadlines for action set by the West, and repeated criticism by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In the meantime, of course, Iran has pursued its nuclear program, announced construction of new enrichment facilities, declared it will enrich uranium to 20 percent (which is a quantum leap towards weapons-grade), been compelled to admit that it hid an enrichment facility near Qom, and cracked down ruthlessly on opposition forces after the fraudulent June elections.
And yet, the U.S. today says it is only certain of seven of the 15 Security Council votes for a sanctions resolution. Again, Tehran must be laughing. It assumes that any eventual resolution will be watered-down to attract the holdouts and, in any case, there will be ways around it.
The theory was that Iran would become more isolated over time. The world would conclude that, if Tehran didn't accept the extended hand, it would have only itself to blame for the consequences.
Sounds plausible, but it seems that no one counted on other critical factors.
First, China proved to be a much tougher nut to crack than anyone anticipated. It's not yet ready to walk away from its close ties with Iran. Beijing has yet to be moved by Washington's appeals to China's global responsibility, assurances of Saudi reserve capacity to make up for lost Iranian oil (countered by an Iranian offer of discounted prices), and portrayals of a Middle East in turmoil after an Israeli strike, if sanctions aren't implemented.
Second, Turkey was elected to the UN Security Council just as its foreign policy began moving in a pan-Islamic direction.
Third, Brazil also joined the UN Security Council. Brasilia has sought to strengthen links with Tehran. The Iranian president was in the Brazilian capital last November, and the Brazilian president is slated to reciprocate this spring.
And fourth, the perception of U.S. power and influence has declined, making it still more difficult for Washington to achieve its diplomatic goals.
Right now, it seems, China isn't listening, and our plea for China to separate bilateral differences (arms sales to Taiwan, the visit of the Dalai Lama to the White House, pressure on the Chinese to revalue their currency, U.S. tariffs on Chinese tires, etc.) from multilateral cooperation is falling on deaf ears.
Nor are Brazil and Turkey in any particular listening mode. And Russia is only half-listening, angered that Tehran rejected Russia's attempted mediating role, yet not eager to follow the U.S. lead in a world where it appears possible to bring America down a few notches
The sanctions most likely to inflict real damage on Iran -- imports of refined energy products, since Iran doesn't have sufficient domestic capacity -- are unlikely to be adopted. First, the French foreign minister said last fall that such sanctions would hurt people in the street rather than the government. More recently, the Obama administration has opposed House and Senate bills calling for punishing energy companies that supply the Iranian market, fearing it will further complicate Washington's diplomatic efforts.
As for the military option, Tehran may be calculating that, in the end, it won't be used. For a variety of reasons, Washington would be reluctant to attack, and it appears to be trying to restrain Israel as well. Indeed, readers in Tehran of Foreign Affairs, the influential American magazine, will surely have been struck by the cover story in the current issue, which sets forth a U.S. strategy for living with the fact of an Iranian bomb.
Thus, from Iran's viewpoint, things may not look so bad.
Sure, there's been internal unrest, but it's been handled ruthlessly and with strikingly little international outcry.
Sure, the economy is suffering from high unemployment, inflation, and corruption, but what else is new? Anyway, oil prices are inching northward again, a good sign for Tehran.
Sure, there are attempts to isolate the country, but they haven't proven particularly effective. From Malaysia to Venezuela, from Brazil to Turkey, from China to Syria, interest in Iran remains high. And the Europeans are only slowly moving to ratchet down their extensive ties, while the gaping holes in the U.S. boycott approach were revealed in a front-page New York Times story a few weeks ago.
Sure, there is always the danger of a military attack, but fear of repercussions -- spiking oil prices sending the fragile global economic recovery into a tailspin; vulnerable U.S. targets in neighboring Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Gulf; heavily-armed Iranian proxies on three Israeli borders; and Iranian-backed Hezbollah sleeper cells around the world -- are likely to temper the appetite for a strike, if there is any to begin with.
That's why Iran's leaders are laughing.
But is the laughter warranted? I wonder if there's a Farsi equivalent for the English expression, "He who laughs last, laughs loudest."
To be continued.