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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Ahmadinejad, a child of the Iran-Iraq war's volunteer force of die-hard believers, the Basij, and the more elite but no less determined Revolutionary Guards Corps, who have become a state within a state as the Islamic Republic has aged, has very little of the old-school mendacity. In my experience, Revolutionary Guards actually don't like to lie. Their raison d'être is at odds with the historical weakness and fear that underlie taqqiyah or, as it is also often known in Persian, ketman. Unvarnished, unsophisticated, hardened, and usually embittered by one of the most merciless wars of the twentieth century, and contemptuous of sinful, colorful, traditional culture, they are often men of sincere faith. They are pure as only men who've been scorched by war can be. They often cannot hear, let alone analyze, the outside world.

Even if Ahmadinejad understands, as Rafsanjani does, the tactical advantages of trying to drag out negotiations with the Europeans--stall and try to advance as much as possible all aspects of the nuclear-weapons program not under seal by United Nations inspectors--he must find the whole process morally revolting. These are men whom Western secularists, especially spiritually inert "realists," barely understand. Western foreign-policy experts hunt for rational calculations and geostrategic designs where what is staring them in the face is faith, defining, for warriors like Ahmadinejad, both right and wrong and the decisive contours of politics and strategic maps. Westerners firmly believe that corruption, omnipresent in Iran, means a loss of religious virtue and zeal. In fact, in clerical Iran there is relatively little friction between violent faith and graft.

For the Europeans, Ahmadinejad has made it difficult--certainly unseemly--to offer Tehran more carrots to halt its fuel-cycle research. That had been the European approach since France, Germany, and Great Britain became engaged in dissuading the clerical regime from developing the capacity to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. Trade deals, World Bank loans, membership in the World Trade Organization, a bit of sympathetic anti-American rhetoric from the French and Germans, and other incentives were meant to stimulate in Tehran rational self-interest. The Europeans, particularly those with a large, active commercial presence in Iran, had been assuring the Americans this was in ascendance. It is by no means clear whether the EU-3 ever really thought their approach could slow down, let alone halt, the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. (In 2003, the French and the Germans were at least as concerned about diplomatically neutralizing George W. Bush's perceived bellicosity towards one more axis of evil.) But the Europeans certainly wanted to try to bribe the clerical regime, and they wanted the Americans to be prepared to offer some lucrative and strategically appealing "grand bargain."

This "realist," incentive-fond sentiment has been powerfully present in Foggy Bottom, which now dominates foreign policy--particularly Iran policy--in the Bush administration. Truth be told, the important voices at the State Department on Iran, which comprise now and then the Near East Bureau diplomats but especially the Europeanists riding high under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would have preferred to adopt a strategy geared more toward carrots than sticks. Engagement is a reflex at State: If diplomacy is seen essentially as a substitute for, not an intimately intertwined complement to, the threat and use of force, this disposition is unavoidable.

Past experience ought to countervail, but it does not. Each time the United States has tried to engage revolutionary Iran--Zbigniew Brzezinski's mission to Algeria in 1979, Robert McFarlane's Iran-contra trip to Tehran in 1986, and President Bill Clinton's and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's forgive-the-West apologias to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 2000--the effort has been either a disaster (Brzezinski and McFarlane) or an embarrassing flop (Clinton-Albright). This Bush administration tried in December 2003, as did the administration of Bush père in June 1990, to reach out to Tehran after terrible earthquakes. Both times, during periods of relative political moderation in the Islamic Republic, American aid was rejected.