How Do You Say "Karl Rove" in Persian?

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

"Simulated irrationality" is an unspoken policy of Iran's leadership -- according to a young Iranian-American academic who I had the chance to hear at a roundtable this week. Hmmmmm... Maybe the leaders in Tehran and Washington are playing the same "Careful, cuz I'm nuts!" game with each other. We declare "all options" on the table, we're all sticks with no carrots (threats but not negotiations). We conduct questionable mega-bomb tests in Nevada (creepily called "Divine Strake"). Congress prepares to dole out money for regime change. As for the other side, Iran's leadership is impossible to decipher (who's in charge of the nukes?) Their wack-a-doo president rants constantly about Israel, denies the holocaust and ups the ante in the nuclear roulette. Call me cynical, but politics, like love and war, has no rules nor geography. Seems President Ahmadinejad has taken a page out of the Rove handbook: Ignore mainstream folks and stoke the fundamentalist base. The armageddon lobby gone global.

Here are some other tidbits I heard this week at various DC discussions.

Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel hysterics are a terrible embarassment for the rest of Iran's leadership. In fact, others in leadership have been forbidden to ever spew in similar fashion. He continues doing this for his political base -- the rural poor -- for whom Islam's relationship to Israel is critical. Wealth distribution is their issue -- and he turns on the fundi rhetoric to distract them from this cruel problem. Values-voters anyone?

"The establishment" in Iran want Ahmadinejad to fail. If he fails on his own, he will be marginalized. If he can blame the USA, he'll stick around, buoyed by nationalism. He's already in constant campaign mode, holding huge rallies. We need to stop writing the plot and characters for our enemy.

In May, 2003, the Bush Administration allegedly received a missive containing extensive concessions from Iran -- including nuclear issues. They didn't respond. Keep in mind, this was right as the USA rolled victoriously into Iraq -- when the Neo-Con hubris was at its most extreme. The theory is that because of the Iraq experience, the Bush administration figured that no discussion was necessary and that they could trounce the Iranians later without compromise. Most shocking missed opportunity: one Iranian concession was an offer to disarm Hezbollah. Given the pulseless response, the Iranians concluded that working with Washington was impossible.

The USA can't rely on Europe to front the nuclear negotiations. Iran is not impressed with the European efforts. Everyone says former president Khatemi improved relations with the EU. Well, Iran received nada in return. They suspended uranium enrichment for two years and all they got were "security guarantees" that were already in the UN Charter.

Is doing nothing an option? No. Non proliferation alone is important enough to make an all out effort. But we haven't really explored diplomacy. We have the same problems today as in 1994, so maybe we need to fundamentally change our policy. If we require 100% compliance ( such as proof that they don't sponsor terrorism) we wouldn't need negotiations in the first place. The US doesn't need a bunch of concessions in hand. We just need to show up.

Walking your talk counts: American efforts to hollow out the International Atomic Energy Agency (demoting them on Iraq and beating up on El Baradei) and the Non Proliferation Treaty (special deals for India) have rendered the US and the West unpersuasive on Iran. Then there's that pesky precendent of North Korea having nukes and being left alone by the USA and Iraq not having nukes and being invaded. We have a legitimacy problem.

What's going on with Iran's huge youth population? Are they "progressives" waiting in the wings? No, since the Khatemi experience was not seen as successful, apathy has taken hold. They haven't turned into revolutionaries, however, they have checked out of politics.

If the USA bombs Iran, the retaliation will be formidable. Iranian cells exist in both Afghanistan and Iraq and capacity for violence exists in the Palestinian territories, Bahrain and Qatar. ( There are anywhere between 5-15 thousand insurgents in Iraq keeping us busy, Ahmadinejad's base is 200,000) In other words, the region would explode.