The Magazine

Going Soft on Iran

From the March 8, 2004 issue: The temptation of America's foreign policy "realists."

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Needless to say, the realist case has evolved with events, and now it is time for the United States to engage "an obnoxious and repressive regime" since Iran's nuclear program, which is much more advanced than we'd guessed, gives us no choice. Thomas Pickering, the perennial ambassador and former undersecretary of state for political affairs, has also underscored Iran's "capacity for making life uncomfortable and messy for the United States and its allies in Iraq" as a reason to seek a modus vivendi with Tehran's clerical overlords.

From the realists' perspective, the reformers had their day, they lost, and now America must deal with the facts on the ground. And, fortunately, Iran's rulers are corrupt divines who no longer believe in their hearts they have a mandate from heaven. First and foremost, they want to stay in power, within secure borders, unthreatened by the United States, Israel, or its neighbors, recognized as a legitimate regional power with accepted interests in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. If we let them be a member of the club, if we make Rafsanjani and Khamenei feel safe, in their own country and in others', then they might give up the bomb.

This realist American diplomacy would be complemented by the efforts of the British, French, and Germans--the "E.U. three" who are responsible for the European Union's Iranian relations. Simultaneously, the Europeans would suggest to Tehran that they might bring the Islamic Republic before the United Nations Security Council for censure for its nuclear prevarications. And if the Iranians continue to misbehave, the Europeans would hint with increasing frankness the possibility of economic sanctions against Tehran--the type of sanctions that American realists want first to lift as a carrot to induce better clerical behavior.

Though not known for using economic sanctions as political tools--Paris just announced a $2 billion oil exploration deal with the Islamic Republic even though its diplomats and spooks have long known that the clerical regime has been blatantly lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency about its nuclear "research" program--the Europeans will, this time, so the theory goes, get serious. After all, they, too, dread the spread of nuclear weapons. They, too, view the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a cornerstone of the liberal internationalist order. Perhaps most of all, they wouldn't want George Bush untethered from adult European supervision, possibly inclined to bomb Iran to keep Rafsanjani and Khamenei from getting a nuclear weapon.

OF COURSE, none of the above makes much sense. Not the understanding of what happened in Iran on February 20. Not the realist position on the ruling clerical elite. Not the likelihood of effective joint action between the Americans and the Europeans. What does make sense, however, is the coming realist assault on President Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy. The realist temptation in the American foreign-policy establishment is always powerful, principally because it is the path of least resistance and least action, and it dovetails nicely with the status-quo reflexes of the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the military brass at the Pentagon. Senator John Kerry appears to have embraced the realist cause.

But if the Bush administration opts for a variation of the realist approach to Iran--and fatigue from rebuilding Iraq certainly reinforces the administration's hitherto pronounced preference to avoid gaming out worst-case contingency plans for dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons programs or the clerical regime's "detention" of senior members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda--it will gut what is left of its post-9/11 "axis of evil" doctrine. It will effectively deny the primary transcendent lesson that President Bush has drawn from 9/11: that the Middle East is politically dysfunctional, that U.S.-backed tyranny in Muslim lands was an essential element in the development of the holy-warriorism of al Qaeda, and that the spread of democracy in the Muslim Middle East remains the only cure for the sacred terror of 9/11.

American realists want none of this. Even after 9/11, they don't really want to be involved in other people's "internal affairs." By nature, they hate Promethean missions. They don't like for America's transatlantic relations--and most realists are pretty devout transatlanticists--to be roiled by a terrorist threat so defined that it mandates a doctrine of preemption. Ideological combat is always an ugly, unmanageable affair, which is why many realists tried so hard to read ideology out of the Cold War. If the Bush administration is serious about transforming the Muslim Middle East--and the jury is still out on whether it is--it will inevitably unsettle, if not alienate, every single "pro-American" king, emir, and dictator in the region.