Misreading the Enemy

By David Ignatius
Friday, April 28, 2006

It's a truism that all conflicts end eventually. But how do you resolve a confrontation with an adversary that appears unable or unwilling to negotiate a settlement? That's a common problem that runs through the West's battles with militant Islam.

The most pressing instance is Iran's drive to become a nuclear power. The United States and its allies still talk as if it will be possible to stop the Iranian nuclear program short of war, through a combination of sanctions and diplomatic negotiations. But the Iranians push ahead, seemingly oblivious, and the ruling mullahs act contemptuous of the West's threats and blandishments.

Iran's implacability may have been the most important lesson of the three years of "negotiations" over its nuclear program conducted by three European Union nations, France, Britain and Germany. In fact, says a senior French official, it wasn't really a negotiation at all. "The E.U. talked and the Iranians responded, but they never came back with counterproposals because they could not agree on anything."

French analysts believe the Iranians displayed a similar refusal to negotiate during their long and bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s. The exhausted Iraqis made efforts to seek a negotiated peace, but the Iranians rejected their feelers. After America and France covertly aided Saddam Hussein, the Iranians finally accepted a United Nations-mandated cease-fire in August 1988. But there was never a formal peace treaty, and the Iranians dragged their feet even on the exchange of prisoners.

The latest example of Iran's diplo-phobia was a statement this week by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissing the U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq that had tentatively been set with the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. There was nothing to talk about, Ahmadinejad implied. Now that the Iraqis had formed a new government, he said, "the occupiers should leave and allow Iraqi people to run their country."

Analysts think this reluctance to negotiate partly reflects divisions within Iran's ruling elite. Certainly the diffuse centers of power in the Iranian government make it difficult to reach a common position. But I suspect there is a deeper disconnect: For a theocratic regime that claims a mandate from God, the very idea of compromise is anathema. Great issues of war and peace will be resolved by God's will, not by human negotiators. Better to lose than to bargain with the devil. Better to suffer physical hardship than humiliation.

This same blockage is evident in other conflicts with Muslim groups. Al-Qaeda doesn't seek negotiations or a political settlement, nor should the West imagine it could reach one with a group that demands that America and its allies withdraw altogether from the Muslim world. The closest Osama bin Laden has come to a political demarche was his Jan. 19 offer of "a long-term truce based on fair conditions," which weren't specified. His deeper message was that al-Qaeda would wait it out -- waging a long war of attrition, confident that its adversaries would eventually grow tired and capitulate. America's powerful weapons might win battles, he said, "but they will lose the war. Being patient and steady is much better, and the end counts."

The West has placed its hopes on the political maturation of radical Muslim groups, figuring that as they assume responsibility, they will grow accustomed to the compromises that are essential to political life. But so far, there is little evidence to support this hope. The Hamas government appears to have nothing it wants to negotiate with Israel. Indeed, it still refuses to formally recognize the existence of its adversary. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has agreed to little compromises since it joined the government, but not big ones.

A word that recurs in radical Muslim proclamations is "dignity." That is not a political demand, nor one that can be achieved through negotiation. Indeed, for groups that feel victimized, negotiation with a powerful adversary can itself be demeaning. That's why the unyielding Yasser Arafat remained popular among Palestinians, despite his failure to deliver concrete benefits. He was a symbol of pride and resistance. Hamas, too, gains support because of its rigid steadfastness, and a strategy that seeks to punish pro-Hamas Palestinians into compromise will probably fail for the same reason.

The Muslim demand for respect isn't something that can be negotiated, but that doesn't mean the West shouldn't take it seriously. For as the Muslim world gains a greater sense of dignity in its dealings with the West, the fundamental weapon of Iran, al-Qaeda and Hamas will lose much of its potency.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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