Iran wants to quit the international community, but the international community won't let it. No act of warfare against the civilized world, no defiance of the United Nations, no violation of international norms, no brazen lie is ever enough to mark Iran as unworthy of outreach, dialogue and the art of sweet persuasion.
When the Iranians seized 15 British sailors in a blatant hostage-taking, the commander of the British ship purred that it might be a "simple misunderstanding." If so, Iran is cursed with terrible luck. Another such misunderstanding lasted 444 days back in 1979-81. In the latest incident, the accident-prone Iranians have had the misfortune of showing the captured British sailors on television and of telling provable lies about where they seized them.
Showing the captives and coercing a confession out of one of them (a woman the Iranians have thoughtfully outfitted in a head-covering to protect her virtue) are violations of the laws of war, not to mention holding them in the first place. Where are the human-rights groups expressing their outrage? The liberal filmmakers readying their scathing documentaries? The European opinionmakers condescendingly tut-tutting? Nowhere to be found, because they never want to give up their pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Engagement.
If talking with the Iranians doesn't work, it is because we aren't talking to them enough, or the wrong people (i.e., not the U.S.) are talking to them, or when we're talking to them, we aren't saying the right things, or we haven't talked to them long enough, or maybe they don't realize just how very sincere we are in our talking. But, surely, sometime soon, if we just keep talking and offering to talk, all these "misunderstandings" will fade away.
In deterrence theory, this is called "mirroring," judging someone else's intentions by looking at your own. James Baker -- the head of the late, great Iraq Study Group -- concluded that Iran wants stability in Iraq and is amenable to negotiations, no doubt partially because he himself wants stability in Iraq and is amenable to negotiations. Indeed, there is no dispute that can't be worked out by haggling with James Baker, but he has never taken any hostages, denied the Holocaust or claimed to have had a halo -- all exploits of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The old saw about a liberal being someone who won't take his own side in a fight applies here. When the Bush administration presented evidence that the Iranians have provided material used to kill American troops in Iraq with roadside bombs, Democrats exploded in outrage -- at the Bush administration, for not being convincing enough, for having delayed the release of the intelligence, for being overly belligerent toward Iran, which just wants to talk to us.
To the contrary, Iran wants to destabilize Iraq so we will leave and Shia radicals will inherit the country. It wants to acquire a nuclear weapon to become the hegemonic power in the Middle East. And it wants to humiliate the United States and its allies at every opportunity. It can't merely be talked out of any of these goals. To the extent we try, we are ensuring the abject failure of diplomacy, which can succeed only after we demonstrate that we aren't to be trifled with.
The United Nations twice has passed resolutions sanctioning Iran for its illicit nuclear program. The first resolution banned nuclear-related exports to Iran but stopped short of banning travel by key officials. The second blocked Iranian arms exports and froze the assets of some officials and entities. Iran, understandably, is unbowed. After their initial hopeful suggestion that the hostage-taking was an honest mistake, the British got tougher. They banned their basically nonexistent bilateral business with Iran. In a few weeks, maybe the Brits will work themselves all the way up to strong-letter-to-follow.
At least that's what the Iranians expect. If we think the current course will ever fundamentally change Iranian behavior, the misunderstanding is all ours.