The Enmity Conspiracy, or How War with Iran Became 'Inevitable'
Image Credit: Office of the President: Iran

The Enmity Conspiracy, or How War with Iran Became 'Inevitable'


The U.S.-Iran conflict has acquired an air of inevitability.

The last ten years appear as a slow-motion prequel to a pre-destined outcome: War. While structural factors have helped push the two actors towards confrontation, there has never been anything inevitable about this conflict. Rather, a long series of miscalculated escalations have brought the two states to the current deadlock.

Iran and the United States are entrapped in a paradigm of enmity. Within the mindset of this paradigm, both assume the worst about the other’s intentions. The “other” embodies almost pure evil, and everything it does is aimed at making life more difficult for you. The gradual adoption of this mindset has created a self-fulfilling prophecy—acting on those assumptions has further entrenched the two sides and rendered a solution to their tensions more difficult. All actions of the other have been interpreted from a lens of absolute, unwavering suspicion. Information that appears to vindicate the mistrust has been seized upon, while data that contradict it have been dismissed, neglected or disbelieved.

Moreover, according to the conspiracy-like understanding that has emerged from this mindset, the other side is believed to have a magnificent grand strategy. All its actions “fit” into this grand strategy and push the country closer and closer to its assumed goal.

What Iran Sees

In the case of Iran’s view of the U.S., the assumed goal is the destruction of the country and replacement of the current regime. All America’s actions are believed to serve this ultimate objective. America is systematic, precise and callous in its pursuit of regime change and the defeat of Iran, the Iranians believe.

Thus, when the U.S. rejected a negotiation offer in 2003 in which the Iranians put everything from their support of Hezbollah, to opposition to Israel to their nuclear program on the table, Tehran viewed that as a vindication of its paranoia regarding American intentions.

When President Obama rejected the fuel swap proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May 2010, even though he in a letter to the leaders of Brazil and Turkey three weeks earlier had endorsed the exact deal they managed to secure, Tehran read that as evidence that Obama’s true intent was to sanction Iran regardless of what compromises Iran would agree to. A broader understanding of Obama’s domestic political constraints didn’t register in Tehran.

Even the occasional U.S. offers to negotiate have been viewed by Tehran as an attempt by Washington to win time and international support for even more crippling sanctions. Talks designed to fail will increase pressure on Tehran and open the door for more sanctions and even military action, the reasoning goes.

“Whatever positive Iran did, the response was always more and more isolation,” an Iranian diplomat told me in Tehran in 2004. The conclusion, he hinted, was that the U.S.’s real objective was to prolong the conflict until it could bring the regime to its knees.

What America and the West See

Similarly, the U.S. assumes that all Iranian actions are geared towards winning time to advance their nuclear program and present a nuclear fait accompli.

When Iran rejected the U.S. offer in 2006 to discuss the nuclear issue—albeit with the precondition that Iran first suspend enrichment activities—Washington interpreted that as evidence of Iran’s long-term intent to seek nuclear weapons. The problem was not with the precondition for the talks, the argument went, but rather with Iran’s disinterest in real diplomacy.

In Februay 2010, Tehran began enriching uranium at the 20% level, following its rejection of a fuel swap proposal by the U.S. and the West’s refusal to sell fuel pads for Iran’s production of medical isotopes for cancer patients. To Washington, this result was not born out of the failure of the talks and Iran’s growing desperation to provide medicine for its cancer patients. Rather, in a calculated and premeditated fashion, the Iranians had engineered the collapse of the talks in order to have a pretext to expand its nuclear program and inch closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

It was all an ingenious plan.

The detail that “proved” this reading of Iranian conduct was the fact that Iran’s escalatory steps were timid and small enough not to generate a harsh response from the international community. That way, Iran could slowly and patiently achieve a weapons capaibility without paying the high price that a swift, dash-for-the-bomb strategy would bring about.

Similarly, when Tehran accepted a variation of the American fuel swap proposal through Turkish and Brazilian mediation, Washington and its Western allies read Iran’s agreement to compromise as a last-ditch effort to evade United Nations Security Council sanctions.

“If you look at the timing of the Tehran Declaration, it was done at the eve of the vote,” Germany’s UN ambassador Peter Wittig told me. “Is that a very credible sign? So the whole timing, the way it was brought about and the phrasing of this declaration did not inspire any confidence. . . . The P-5 didn’t want any monkey business at that time.”

It was just another act of deception by Iran aimed at splitting the international community—a tactical maneuver designed to recalibrate the strategy of expanding the nuclear program through small steps that did not generate an international backlash.

The fact that the Iranians were saying yes to a proposal that was built on the American swap proposal from October 2009 and which Obama himself had endorsed in letters to the leaders of Brazil and Turkey mattered little. Tehran’s conduct simply fit too well into the theory on Iran’s grand strategy.

And within the paradigm of enmity, theory trumps reality, and assumptions and conclusions are the same.

Like all conspiracy theories, “the grand strategy” belief offers comfort and a sense of orientation. It also exonerates the beholder of any wrongdong since the disastrous situation between the two countries is a product of the evil designs of the other side, not of any mistakes or miscalculations of one’s own making.

A Clumsy Improvisation?

As appealing or comforting as this theory may be, it simply doesn’t hold up.

A far more plausible explanation for the current deadlock is not that the two sides have a glorious grand strategy but that they actually don’t have a strategy at all.

European officials I interviewed for my book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran admitted as much, insisting that their coordination meetings focused on the next tactical steps rather than on a broader strategy. Rather than working according to a premeditated design, the two sides have reacted to each other based on worst-case assumptions and the unquestioned belief that the other side invariably is acting with hostility. Opportunties have been missed and hostilities have drawn far beyond what either side actually originally intended. Neither side wanted to or planned to go as far as they have in their grandstanding.

The two countries are on the brink of war due to this vicious cycle of unending escalation and counter-escalation, born from their unquestioned assumptions and conclusions about each other.

Only by revisiting these assumptions and questioning these conclusions can a path towards peace be found. If this pattern is not broken, however, then open war is indeed a likely outcome. But there has never been anything inevitable about this man-made disaster.

Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States and Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

James Mason
October 14, 2012 at 07:42

Israel likes chaos. Chaos in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq. Someday that same chaos will come to the USA, delivered by the same people. Wake up America. 

October 14, 2012 at 06:37

"Only by revisiting these assumptions and questioning these conclusions can a path towards peace be found"… If there is an opportunity for alternate action that could lead to a conclusion other than war, then it is not inevitable. 

August 2, 2012 at 00:01

I think it is a bit ridiculous to point to a singular cause for this looming war.
I think that a War between Iran and the US is not simply about the economics of oil and resources for an imperialistic United States foreign policy, but also a clash of ideology, a clash of culture and a clash for regional influence.
My view of the economics for the causation of war is both simple. In the short term in a conflict between Iran and NATO, the immediate result of economic destruction worldwide is a calculated risk. However, if such a war was successful in weakening harshly Iranian regional influence, than the economic forecast for the region, and the world, would favor lower worldwide energy costs which would benefit greatly Western Civilization. Iran however feels that higher energy costs would benefit its own people and nation. My opinion on the matter is that both sides are correct and that a possible medium ground should have been sought after a long time ago.
My view of the cultural causation of war is easy enough to understand. The Western civilization mostly agrees with Israel’s viewpoint and right to exist as a nation; while the Iranian Persian civilization mostly disagrees with Israel’s viewpoint and right to exist as a nation. This has led the Iranians to support what the west calls terrorism and what the Iranians might call Holy Warriors. Most of Western civilization does not understand how Iran and other Arab and Muslim dominated cultures can consider Biblically Jewish Land, occupied lands of the Jewish people; rather, the West views the formation of Israel as the Jewish homeland liberated from hundreds and hundreds of years of occupation by foreign powers. The inability of both sides to understand the others perspective on this matter has led to the US and West supplying Israel with the very best technology and weaponry available to defend itself while the Arabs have had to use martyrs and civilian ingenuity to wage their holy war. My opinion is that there will not be an end to this particular conflict of culture, history and civilization until one or the other is decimated or suffers such a catastrophic defeat that War can no longer be waged. Even then, it might only temporarily be postponed.
Ultimately, I don’t want to see a War between the US/NATO and Iran. It has the potential to spread to large regional conflict or even another world wide conflict. Economically the risk is too great. Culturally, it doesn’t make sense at this time to enlarge the conflict or add fuel to the flame.

July 28, 2012 at 03:36

You are wrong. Iran did apply openly to initiate the building of the atomic reactor, but it was rejected  by us . If us didn't deny Iran of their right , then they didn't have to did it secretly. here for you to read.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its plans to restart its nuclear program using indigenously made nuclear fuel, and in 1983 the IAEA planned to provide assistance in uranium conversion (not enrichment) to Iran under its Technical Assistance Program, until the program was terminated under U.S. pressure.[7] An IAEA report at the time stated clearly that its aim was to "contribute to the formation of local expertise and manpower needed to sustain an ambitious program in the field of nuclear power reactor technology and fuel cycle technology." Iran's enrichment program was openly discussed on national radio in the early 1980s,[8] and IAEA inspectors were even invited to visit Iran's uranium mines in 1992.[9]
Iran announced plans in 1995 to build a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion plant at the Nuclear Technical Centre in Esfahan, with Chinese assistance. During a November 1996 IAEA visit to Isfahan, Iran, informed the IAEA Department of Safeguards that it planned to build a uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion plant at the Nuclear Technology Center.[10] The UF6 plant was scheduled to open after 2000, but the project was abandoned by China under pressure from the United States in October 1997.[11][12][13] The Iranians informed the IAEA that they would complete the project nonetheless. In 2000, the Iranians completed the uranium conversion project, using the blueprints provided to them by China, and declared the facility to the IAEA. The facility was planned with the intention of supplying UO2 (Uranium dioxide) as fuel to the 40 MW Heavy Water Reactor under construction at Arak and to meet the needs of UF6 (Uranium hexafluoride) for the Natanz enrichment facility.[14]
Iran argues that it disclosed information about its programs in which "in nearly all cases, it was not any way obliged to disclose in accordance with its obligations under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA."[6] Iran says its voluntary confidence building measures were only "reciprocated by broken promises and expanded requests" and that the EU3 "simply wanted prolonged and fruitless negotiations" to inhibit Iran from exercising its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology.[15]
Iran says it has suggested to the EU3 to ask the IAEA to develop monitoring modalities for Iran's enrichment program as objective guarantees to ensure that Iran's nuclear program will remain exclusively for peaceful purposes and has also provided its own set of Western suggested modalities to the Agency.[6]
However, Iran says it will not suspend its enrichment because "it would further be deprived from its inalienable right to work on nuclear fuel cycle, with the aim of producing required fuels for its research reactors and nuclear power plants."[16]
Dr. William O. Beeman, Brown University's Middle East Studies program professor, who spent years in Iran, says that the Iranian nuclear issue is a unified point of their political discussion:

"The Iranian side of the discourse is that they want to be known and seen as a modern, developing state with a modern, developing industrial base. The history of relations between Iran and the West for the last hundred years has included Iran's developing various kinds of industrial and technological advances to prove to themselves—and to attempt to prove to the world—that they are, in fact, that kind of country."

Captive Audience
July 25, 2012 at 08:24

The US population lives on a diet of propaganda.  It's impossible to know what's true and what isn't anymore.  I know one thing though, the only thing that will keep the US from invading your country is having nuclear weapons.  I can't blame them for wanting weapons as insurance against the country that invaded their neighbors under false pretenses.

July 24, 2012 at 13:01

Couldn't have said it better repairlists. 

July 24, 2012 at 12:59

You are beautiful shining proof of what Parsi wrote about in this very article. Thank you for corroborating his argument.

July 23, 2012 at 13:33

A ridiculous, spurious "analysis" in the sense that it passes over the basic issue, which is regime change hidden beneath the cover of a nuclear threat which doesn't exist. One could use the same kind of analysis preceding the Iraq invasion, in which the U.S. spuriously brandished the threat of a nuclear Iraq.Is his supposed to be a balanced view of the Iran/NATO-U.S "confrontation"?
Others have alluded to the desire of U.S.foreign policy for total control of the Middle East and its precious resource, oil.

July 23, 2012 at 12:01

Repairlists. Well said.

July 23, 2012 at 11:58

The author of the article writes about the 'paradigm of enmity' and then you pop up and recapitulate the argument.

July 23, 2012 at 05:38

try saying that when your son or daughter comes home in a coffin, or worse, when all that's left of them in that coffin can fit inside of a cigarette box. will you support a senseless and uneccessary war then?

July 22, 2012 at 19:02

Iran should just drop out of the NPT because the US is going to war as long as there is billions of barrels of oil under the sand in Iran there will be conflict. I think I have read 100 articles on this issue and not one of them after all of the over analizing supposed insightful commentary and rehashed regurgitated bullshit can anyone tell how in the hell is Iran a greater threat to world peace than the US. Let us pretend that Iran has a nuke to protect it self from two countries that threaten war almost on a daily bases. Am I to assume Iran will be emboldened and start invading countries setting up military bases around the world parking aircraft carriers off the east and west coast of the US perhaps assassinate a US or Isreali scientist, maby they might create a computer virus to shut our nuke plants down,heres one maby they would hire Blackwater to do their dirty,maby put some sanctions on the US to force us to dispose of our nuke, cause god knows we'll use them (JAPAN) you know killing people saves lives.
Fools need to face facts If Iran starts selling oil for gold like Lybia was planning its over for the US economy war is a for gone conclusion. anything else you hear is bullshit dubble talk.

July 22, 2012 at 18:03

 Iran Had a democraticly elected leader over thrown in 1953 because they dared to take control of their own natural resource. They have had sanctions placed on them in some form or another since that time. That being said this is about oil. Iran is a big gas station. And no amount of over analizing the uranium enrichment by Iran is going to change the fact that if multinational corporations aren't pumping oil out of Iran the west is going to have a problem with it. Also the NPT is a complete farce form the start it's designed to handicap resource rich nations and I shouldn't have to explain why. The west imposes it's will on non nuke resource rich countries and negotiates with thoughs that have nukes, well not unless your Pakastan. I would also point out that Iran does not have military bases all over the world nor is it invading and violating the sovereignty or assaainating scientist of other countries. they haven't even nuked Japan. Also Iran has not imposed crippling sanctions on the US and Isreal whom is a nonsignatory of the NPT and threatens the whole of the middle east. If Iran had a nuke and a stronger military this type debate would never happen no P5+1, no aircraft carrier sittting off Irans coast line. no imposition of western hegemony in that region of the world

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