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July 25, 2003

The Art of Brinksmanship
Mehdi Yahyanejad  [info|posts]

On October 28, 1962, President Kennedy went on television to inform the American people that the Soviet Union was deploying medium ballistic missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy warned that this was not going to be accepted. He ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and demanded from Soviet Chairman Khrushchev the removal of all ballistic missile capability from Cuba under U.N. supervision. Kennedy was openly calling for confrontation if his wishes were not fulfilled. Khrushchev, shocked by Kennedy's boldness, accused Kennedy of pushing the humankind "to the abyss of a world missile-nuclear war." Nevertheless, he backed down and ordered cancellation of missile deployment in return for an American promise not to invade Cuba. A week earlier, when Kennedy had received the intelligence about the missile deployment, he knew well that he was not going to accept this new advance of the Soviets, which could have immensely damaged American prestige. This left him with two choices: one was a direct attack on Cuba, which could have escalated to a full confrontation between the superpowers; the other was using rhetoric to show his opponent how dire the consequence of their actions could be if they didn't back down. He chose the second option. He was an orator; he skillfully used rhetoric to make his opponent understand that their chosen path could result in the destruction of both parties. Kennedy stood firm, pushed for confrontation, used strong rhetoric, and ultimately won.

On March 12, 2000, the hardliners in Iran created for Khatami his most challenging moment by assassinating Saeed Hajjarian, Khatamiís political advisor and a reform strategist. People were shocked and angry. It was a time when they were quite hopeful about Khatami's reform and were waiting for the result of Tehran's parliamentary elections, which were overhwelmingly won by the reformists. Khatami faced a serious challenge. Khatami had the option of mobilizing people in streets, as well as calling all ministries to shut down until the individuals behind this heinous act were brought to justice. Khatami rightfully decided not to exercise any of these options. There was no guarantee that violence could be prevented and that vigilantes would not attack people.

But there was no need for such confrontational actions to win. Khatami could have resorted to rhetoric and brinksmanship. He could have made hardliners understand that if they would not back down, a full-scale confrontation could result in their destruction. He could have asked for something specific such as proper prosecution of the guilty and a roundup of vigilantes. Also, he could have backed up his rhetoric with non-confrontational acts such as asking people to hold candlelight vigils in the doorsteps of their houses and pray for the badly injured Hajjarian.

Khatami failed to act. Once again, he resorted to conflicted statements without much concrete substance, and he failed to push back the conservativesí advance. The outcome of this failure was grim. Not only was Khatami unable to prosecute the assassins, he also became unable to pursue his own reforms. This event marked the start of the defeat of the reform movement. The conservatives became bolder day by day. They shut down 80 newspapers in less than three months. In the years after, scores of journalists and students were jailed. Khatami's close political allies were not left immune either.

Khatami's days of popularity have gone. Now, neither threatening to resign nor threatening to speak out more boldly can scare the conservatives. Using rhetoric is not an option anymore, since hardliners are well aware that Khatami has lost the popularity and the power to mobilize people. Khatami has been pushed back by the conservativesí plans. The policy of the conservatives in the past six years is best captured by Massoud Dehnamaki, head of the Ansar Hezbollah vigilante group, when he said that they-- the extremists-- and the rest of the nation are all in a bus, and that hardliners can threaten others by proving that they have the guts to remove and throw the steering wheel out of the window. Conservatives, who get richer day by day, are not going to allow any one of their Ansar Hezbollah subordinates to throw the steering wheel out of the window, but at least they have the guts to use this rhetoric.

Vahid at July 25, 2003 01:36 PM [permalink]:

I don't know, maybe you are right. But the condervatives, has proven that they are not willing to loose the power for any price. Maybe what they say is not just a bluff, and they are willing to take the people and the country down with them. So khatami's invitation to a confrontation, could actually result in a full scale civil war.

Hazhir at July 28, 2003 06:28 PM [permalink]:

Just a historical clarification on Cuban missile crisis, which might also be relevant to the main discussion. I don't remember the exact reference, but apparently the new evidence that is coming out of Soviets show that if it was not for the decision of one Soviet general, the world had seen the scalation of the crisis into a full blown atomic confrontation. Specifically, based on pre-devised procedures, the head of soviets leading submarine has been supposed to launch its atomic missle towards US soil when facing the same conditions they were facing in the climax of the crisis, provided the go order of 3 higher generals. He asks for the permission and 2 out of 3 generals order the launch, but the 3ed declines... saving the world and announcing Kennedy the winner of this dangerous game.
For side reference, a very good account of US decision making system in Cuban missle crises can be found in : "Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis" by Graham Allison, it is a fascinating piece.

Mohammad Mahdian at July 29, 2003 08:14 PM [permalink]:

It's true that the days of popularity of Khatami are over, but I think still if he uses a strong rhetoric, people will support him.

Kaveh at July 30, 2003 10:30 AM [permalink]:

But that's exactly the point here: He is not a man of strong rhetoric. This is also the reason why his days of popularity are over. Just count the number of times people were hopeful that heould come out and say somthing. People don't just forget these things.