The Magazine

Coming Soon: Nuclear Theocrats?

How to head off the imam bomb.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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LET US STATE THE OBVIOUS: The new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a godsend. The Americans, the Europeans, and even the Russians are now treating clerical Iran's 20-year quest to develop nuclear weapons more seriously. Ahmadinejad's inflamed rhetoric against America, Israel, and the Jews, which is in keeping with the style and substance of the president's former comrades in the praetorian Revolutionary Guard Corps, combined with the clerical regime's decision to restart uranium enrichment, has returned some sense of urgency to efforts to thwart Tehran.

Whatever their merits, the EU-3 negotiations with Tehran--which began in 2003 after an Iranian opposition group publicly broadcast information about Tehran's clandestine nuclear-research program--diminished American attention to Iran's wannabe nuclear theocrats. What had been rapidly becoming a white-hot topic cooled, which was an objective of an administration taxed severely by Iraq and fearful of another row with the Western Europeans. Washington seriously wanted the Europeans to become more supportive in Mesopotamia; they were becoming more engaged on the ground in Afghanistan. We needed the French, Germans, and Brits to "own" our Iran policy, which would, so the sincere proponents of this policy argued, form a united Western front against the Islamic Republic. Ownership would produce responsibility--something the commercially driven Europeans had rarely shown toward the clerical regime, which in the 1980s and 1990s had directly or through its Lebanese proxies frequently assassinated Iranian dissidents in Europe and even occasionally blown up the natives (the Paris bombings of 1986) without European governments' making much of a fuss. With the Europeans in the lead, nonpetroleum sanctions that might actually have a bite in Tehran would become possible.

The State Department diplomats who devised this strategy probably knew in their hearts that they were seeing possibilities in the Europeans that did not exist. Foreign-service officers working France, Germany, and NATO in 2003 and 2004 knew the depth of the anti-Americanism in Berlin and the cynicism about a nuclear Iran in Paris. But nobody wanted to replace hope with reality, which would lead one to the inexorable conclusion that preventive military strikes were the only way of significantly delaying or derailing Tehran's nuclear program. It's a very good bet that the U.S. officials now running America's Iran policy would rather see the clerics go nuclear than deal with the world the day after Washington begins bombing Iran's atomic-weapons and ballistic-missile facilities.

The unexpected election this past June of President Ahmadinejad, whom the Europeans didn't see coming (neither did the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency), annihilated the essential cosmetics of the EU-3 dialogue with Iran. On the issue of Israel and the iniquity of the Jews, or in his hatred of the United States and its "imperialistic, anti-Islamic, morally destructive culture," Ahmadinejad is, of course, on the same page as Iran's two preeminent mullahs, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the cleric who really got the Islamic Republic's nuclear program rolling in 1989-90, and the country's leader, Ali Khamenei. Anyone who has ever read and remembered Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's speeches since 1979 knows well that both clerics--but especially Khamenei--would have had warm and loquacious evenings with Austrian anti-Semites of yesteryear.

Where Ahmadinejad differs with his two colleagues and with Iran's former "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami (who also can sound like a faithful child of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when talking about Zion, the Jews, and the destructiveness of American civilization) is that he never really practices taqqiyah, the very Iranian-Shiite art of dissimulation, which historically grew from the trials and tribulations that Shiites have endured in the much larger, often unkind Sunni Muslim world. Khamenei, Khatami, and Rafsanjani, all raised in a prerevolutionary culture accentuated by clerical training, seem to have a much easier time lying. They can shamelessly weave, dodge, and prevaricate. They can in their (usually small) inconsistencies give you hope. (Rafsanjani, the most refined and intelligent of the three, wins the award for being the boldest liar.) In Iran, the very Anglo-American understanding of "truth and consequences," where mendacity leads to pain, is reversed: Honesty, especially with strangers, is likely to cause trouble.