Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Iran on Best Behavior

by Elliott Abrams
April 12, 2012


Iran is under remarkably tough sanctions and about to begin negotiations over its nuclear program. So how is it signaling its willingness to play by the rules and engage in serious dialogue?

First came the ridiculous proposal that the negotiations be held in Syria, Lebanon, China, or Iraq, a suggestion that seemed to make a mockery of the talks. They are to take place in Turkey. Far more serious was the visit of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, on April 11, to the Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa.  Abu Musa is one of three islands strategically located at the entrance to the Gulf. In 1971 Iran agreed that one of the Emirates, Sharjah, had sovereignty over the islands, but in 1992 it forcibly took control of them. The UAE has sought United Nations help and International Court adjudication of sovereignty, but Iran has refused: those are games Iran will not play unless it is sure of winning. And why risk adjudication when force is available?

No Iranian leader had ever visited the island of Abu Musa—until this week. So why now? Why engage in trouble-making, why infuriate Arab neighbors, just when talks about the nuclear program are about to begin? That is precisely the point: Iran is signaling that these talks will not change the policies that have set the entire region on edge. This kind of visit shows a non-nuclear Iran on best behavior prior to negotiations that require some belief in Iran’s good faith, so one is led to ask how a nuclear-armed Iran would behave in the future. What other territory would it claim, what other acts of terrorism would it undertake, what pressure on other oil producers would it mount, under a nuclear umbrella?

The Ahmadinejad visit to Abu Musa is a timely reminder that Iran’s nuclear program is not our only problem with the Islamic Republic and not the only reason it is under sanctions. In fact the internal repression and human rights abuses, support for terror, and backing of Hezbollah and the vicious Assad regime in Syria are all hallmarks of the Islamic Republic and will be “solved” only when it is replaced by a decent and democratic government in Tehran. As the nuclear talks begin, it is worth recalling that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is today the most dangerous aspect of the regime—but far from the only challenge it presents to its neighbors, to the entire Middle East, and to the United States.



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  • Posted by Beatrice S.

    Our concern for Iran seems more and more like an overreaction just as it was with Iraq.

    I think we’re more concerned about Israel attacking Iran than we are about Iran. Even this seems like an overreaction. There was (and for some reason still is) concern about Israel wiping out Iraq’s nuclear facilities, and the main fallout from that was a horrendous propaganda war.. Nothing really happened afterward that was connected with Israel’s attack. In fact, realistically, Israel’s attack should have prevented America’s war with Iraq.

    I wonder if Israel attacking Iran’s facilities would be equally non-exciting. It’s difficult to imagine that a country such as Iran with a 12th century regime in power could be a major player in the 21st century.

    Now, if the modern day Iranians who want to bring their country into the 21st century were to take power, that would be something to get excited about.

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