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U.S. policy on Iran is to exert “maximum pressure” to force the Islamic regime into renegotiating the terms of its landmark nuclear deal with the rest of the world – a deal that President Donald Trump pulled out of last year.
That pressure includes harsh sanctions that are hurting Iran’s economy and threats of military action to “obliterate” certain targets.
But Tehran is not budging. Indeed, it seems to be digging in. And observers inside and outside Iran suggest that pressure is unlikely to work. They recall Ayatollah Khomeini’s painful decision in 1988 to accept a cease-fire with Iraq, taken only when he thought his revolution was in mortal danger.
At the time, he lamented that he was drinking from a “chalice of poison.” He never again spoke in public.
Ever since, the chalice of poison has been a metaphor in Iran for caving in under pressure – the last thing any leader can be seen to do.
“People are nervous,” says an analyst in Tehran. “But as for saying it is on the brink of implosion, that’s not true. It takes a lot more.”
Is President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran enough to make the Islamic Republic cry uncle?
Probably not, to judge by the most significant climb-down that Tehran has conceded since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
It was the spring of 1988, and after eight years of ferocious fighting, Iranian troops had reversed Iraq’s invasion and pushed deep into Iraqi territory. Saddam Hussein – supported by the U.S., Soviet Union, and European nations – unleashed one of the war’s heaviest chemical weapon attacks and threatened to gas Iranian cities if Iran did not agree to a cease-fire.
The Iranian military had lost some 60% of its hardware and could barely find new recruits, and the nation’s economy had shriveled. When the United States inadvertently shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers, Tehran took it as a sign that the Americans were willing to do anything to defeat the Islamic Republic.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini finally gave in, shocking Iranians as he said, “I drink this chalice of poison.” The human toll had been unprecedented in modern conflict, with 1 million dead and wounded on both sides, in a war that hadn’t even changed the border, just soaked it in blood.
“The television was showing our soldiers and he kept hitting himself with his fists saying ‘aah,’” Mr. Khomeini’s eldest son later recalled of his father’s reaction. “After accepting the cease-fire, he could no longer walk. ... He never again spoke in public.”
Legacy of language
Ever since, in Iran, “drinking from the chalice of poison” has been a metaphor for caving in under pressure – the sort of pressure that Tehran feels today from the Trump administration.
Iranian officials are loath to be seen surrendering under such conditions; they vow to resist U.S. demands; and they swear, as Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently declared – that “as long as the U.S. is what it is today, dialogue will be poison, and with this administration the poison will be even twice as deadly.”
Analysts say that U.S. sanctions may be crippling the economy but they have yet to bring Iran to another “chalice of poison” moment. Instead of sparking popular unrest, they note, the pressure has consolidated a popular consensus that Iran is being unfairly targeted and that any rapprochement would be humiliating.
“If the choice is surrender or war, they [Iran’s leadership] would escalate to war,” predicts Ervand Abrahamian, a renowned historian of Iran now retired from Baruch College, City University of New York.
“If there is an economic crisis, they would also try to complement it with a military crisis, because once American bombs start falling, people are not going to criticize the government, people are more likely to rally around the flag,” says Professor Abrahamian.
Effects of U.S. levers
Though Mr. Trump this week called off a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a $130 million U.S. intelligence drone that Iran says violated its airspace, he later tweeted that Iran would be met with “overwhelming force” if its forces attacked “anything American.” In some instances, he warned, that would amount to “obliteration.”
U.S. officials say their “maximum pressure” policy is designed to force Iran to renegotiate a landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement last year, though European nations, Russia, and China are still committed to it. Washington added new sanctions this week, targeting Mr. Khamenei and eight Revolutionary Guard commanders.
But how close might Iran be to a “chalice of poison” capitulation?
“We are far from that point,” says a veteran analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.
“I remember, right before the ‘drinking from the chalice’ [in 1988], there were reports of young people complaining that they didn’t have enough batteries for their radios,” says the analyst. “There were shortages of everything, everywhere, and most important of all the shortage of [military] volunteers.”
These days, prices have rocketed and some Iranians struggle to pay their rent. “People are more nervous, they have less patience,” says the analyst. “But as for saying it is on the brink of implosion, that’s not true. It takes a lot more.”
“There are still some exports, some imports, some money coming; smugglers are doing their good job of providing anything in the shops and under the table, like alcoholic drinks. Life goes on, despite the harshest sanctions,” the analyst says.
“Iranian leaders will not capitulate ... unless the situation deteriorates very much, and I can’t imagine that,” he adds.
Some moderate and reformist politicians have called for dialogue with the U.S. to avoid a war. But they are being drowned out by hardliners who criticized the nuclear deal from the start.
“At a time when the poison of the earlier [nuclear] talks with the U.S. remains in the body of our nation, fresh negotiations are yet another dangerous chalice of poison for the heroic Iranian nation,” the hard-line Kayhan newspaper said in an editorial last week.
Iran’s ultimate unity
U.S. officials have said there is an “open door” for Iran to negotiate, but Washington is still insisting on the 12 demands it made last year that would require the Iranian government to give up all its domestic and regional levers of influence.
“Trump may say that he’s willing to negotiate, but they are not actually offering anything to Iran,” says Mr. Abrahamian, the historian. The 12 American “commandments,” he says, amount to “unconditional surrender.”
The anti-Iran hawks in Washington pushing for conflict, he says, have little understanding of Iran.
“Their premise is that the regime is fragile, so sanctions are going to bring it down,” says Mr. Abrahamian. “If they don’t, then bombing raids on nuclear sites will bring the regime down. But I don’t think that will work so then the question is: What’s next?”
In such a scenario, he predicts a “mechanism of escalation,” in which Iranian forces and their proxies would target Americans across the Middle East.
“I know Iranian officials worry,” says the analyst in Tehran. “Moderates think we should do something practical to change the situation. ... Hardliners wish for a confrontation, a real war that they can go out and fight and perform that anti-Americanism ideal of the revolution.
“Under pressure, many Iranians find unity behind the government if there is an external enemy,” adds the analyst. “If the Americans make a military move, this would be accelerated.”