Postscript: Oops, sorry!

The Iranians did not invent suicide bombing, but they certainly promoted its use, especially by their surrogates against Israel.

Iranian women 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian women 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have been dying to repeat this anecdote, but could never quite find the right opportunity to do so. Now I think I have it.
The story, heard first-hand, is that several years back, when an Israeli diplomat was about to leave Beijing after completing her service as a consul there, her Chinese counterpart presented her with a gift: a beautiful leather-bound, hand-embossed copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most notorious anti-Semitic tracts ever published outside of Mein Kampf.
With extended hands and bowed head she explained: “We want to be like you People, the Jews. We also want to own the banks and Hollywood and control the media. We respect you greatly.”
What brought the incident to mind was the observation made by an analyst in a meeting recently that perhaps we don’t understand the Iranians as well as we think we do, just as this Chinese diplomat thought she may have understood Israel, but not quite.
In the Chinese case the misunderstanding, which obviously emanated from a good place, could have caused mild insult or, at worst, a minor diplomatic incident if someone really wanted to make an issue of things. With the Iranians, however, cultural misunderstandings can have strategic consequences.
The Iranian leadership has usually been credited with “rational thinking” – sort of religious fanatics with good business acumen. This is now being questioned. Iran is not reacting to the several crises it faces in the rational if bellicose way that the experts had come to expect.
Take the huge internal economic problems it faces. Its currency has devalued by more than 50 percent in recent months. You would think that international sanctions would be the last thing they would want. That they would open up their nuclear facilities for international inspection in the same measured, clever, disingenuous way they have in the past, to avoid even more economic pressures like the current embargo.
You would think that with the threat of an American, or Israeli, attack on its nuclear facilities, the last thing the regime would be doing is playing games in the Gulf, bringing American and allied war ships into the zone, negating any threat Iran can pose there and enraging the Arab oil-producing states at the same time.
If the Americans are looking for a reason to actually stop the Iranians from having a nuclear weapon, as President Barack Obama has explicitly promised, and if 2012 is a critical year because this is the year the program goes underground and becomes impenetrable, why give the Americans a potential “trigger” by messing about in the Gulf?
Any rational businessman, even the most devout ayatollah, knows that messing with the world’s oil supply is one sure way to make enemies even of close friends. Even China and Russia are beginning to shake their heads. Russia has its own energy and can’t be threatened and the Chinese are looking elsewhere.
If worried about an Israeli strike, Iran should be looking toward international forums for protection and sympathy, not challenging them; forging bonds with the Europeans, not threatening them; courting the Arabs, not turning them into enemies.
Providing the Americans with a potential trigger in the Gulf; sending supporters to look for energy elsewhere; isolating oneself at a time of a hemorrhaging internal economic crisis, when exports and international relations are so important; marching backward while the Arab world tries to look forward to a better future; and reacting to the loss of key allies by alienating the few friends you have demonstrates neither business acumen nor logic, but a march into the books of folly.
Unless, that is, there is something we just don’t quite see; something in the plot that makes people turn a compliment into an unintended insult, a well-intended gesture into a deep lesson on the importance of the cultural context in international relations.
There are many former Iranians serving in the multitude of intelligence services that follow the ayatollahs and their regime, but distance comes with a cost. There were similar multitudes of former Iraqis working in the same intelligence services when George W. Bush went to war to stop Saddam’s nonconventional weapons program, no trace of which was ever found – well, almost.
Ongoing contacts with sources, reading the Iranian press, watching Iranian Internet sites and television, Tweets and other links, provide a lot of information, almost too much. Texture, however, is another thing, and just as the seasoned Chinese diplomat made a slight mistake in something she thought she had a perfect understanding of, so we may be looking at today’s Iran through the wrong glasses, relying on opinions from experts who are removed and encased in calcified preconceptions, and not being sensitive enough to discern why seemingly potentially self-defeating policies are emanating from what all assumed to be a pragmatic, if over-zealous, Iranian leadership.
The Iranians did not invent suicide bombing, but they certainly promoted its use, especially by their surrogates against Israel. Many of those who served as human bombs did so because they thought heaven had a lot more to offer than life on this earth, the 70 virgins that come with the deal often being a great incentive.
Who knows what’s going on in the minds of the ayatollahs? They certainly don’t seem overly concerned about the cash register at the moment.
Let’s just hope they’re not going for the virgins.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was recently awarded the 2011 National Jewish Book Award in the History category.