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What Vietnam Should Teach Us About Iran

J.E. Dyer’s excellent post yesterday correctly noted that this week’s talks with Iran, like the previous rounds, will merely buy Tehran more time to advance its nuclear program. That the West would commit such folly shows it has yet to learn a crucial lesson of the Vietnam War: though it sees compromise as the ultimate solution to any conflict, its opponents’ aim is often total victory.

Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state during Vietnam, expounded on this difference at a State Department conference this fall. As Haaretz reported:

The Americans sought a compromise; the North Vietnamese a victory, to replace the regime in the south and to unite the two halves of Vietnam under their rule. When they became stronger militarily, they attacked; when they were blocked, they agreed to bargain; when they signed an agreement, they waited for an opportunity to break it and win.

That same disconnect between the parties’ goals exists today over Iran’s nuclear program. The West repeatedly says its goal is compromise. Even as the UN approved new sanctions against Tehran in June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her ultimate aim was to get Iran “back at the negotiating table.” And when the EU discussed additional sanctions in July, its high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, insisted that “The purpose of all this is to say, ‘We’re serious, we need to talk.’ … Nothing would dissuade me from the fact that talks should happen.”

Iran, however, isn’t seeking compromise; it’s playing to win. And that explains all its diplomatic twists and turns, like scrapping last year’s deal to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad immediately after signing it.

Diplomats and journalists, convinced that Iran, too, wants compromise, have espoused strained explanations, like disagreements between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief backer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But once you realize that Iran’s goal is victory, it’s clear that Tehran never intended to give up its uranium. It merely wanted time to develop its nuclear program further before new sanctions were imposed. The scrapped deal bought it a year: first the months of talks; then more time wasted in efforts to lure Iran back to the deal it walked out of; and finally, months spent negotiating the new sanctions, which weren’t discussed previously for fear of scuttling the chances of a deal.

Now Tehran again feels pressured, so, like Hanoi, it’s agreeing to bargain. It’s no accident that after months of preliminary jockeying, Iran finally set a date for the talks immediately after the WikiLeaks cables made worldwide headlines. The cables’ revelation of an Arab consensus for military action against Tehran gives new ammunition to an incoming Congress already inclined to be tougher on Iran and also facilitates a potential Israeli military strike: who now would believe the inevitable Arab denunciations afterward?

So Iran, cognizant of the West’s weakness, has taken out the perfect insurance policy: as long as it’s talking, feeding the West’s hope for compromise, Western leaders will oppose both new sanctions and military action. And Tehran will be able to continue its march toward victory unimpeded.