The Magazine

The End of Nuclear Diplomacy

Iran to the West: Drop dead

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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On July 30, Ali Khamenei demolished what was left of George W. Bush's Iran policy. Iran's clerical overlord also put paid to Senator Barack Obama's dreams of tête-à-tête, stop-the-nukes diplomacy. Ten days earlier the Americans, British, French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese had gathered in Geneva hoping to convince Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. True to form, Khamenei told them all to stick it. The Islamic Republic will not cease and desist: "Taking one step back against the arrogant powers [the West] will lead them to take one step forward," Khamenei replied. So much for the "significant" presence of William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who went to Geneva to show Tehran and the Europeans the United States' willingness to have senior-level contacts with the clerical regime. (Note to the American left: If Ali Khamenei had even once sent a secret senior emissary to Washington expressing his conditional willingness to restore diplomatic relations, we would now have an embassy in Tehran. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Bush Senior all would have--quite rightly--leapt at the opportunity.)

The mission by Burns, an accomplished "realist" diplomat, is exactly what Obama's campaign had in mind when they said that a President Obama would approve "preparatory" meetings with Iranian officials before he sought to have a face-to-face with a worthy counterpart, which given the Iranian political system means either Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of Iran's Expediency Council and the cleric who got Iran's clandestine nuclear-weapons program rolling. Since the Illinois senator first broached the idea of personal diplomacy during a Democratic primary debate, Khamenei has unleashed a barrage of speeches against "Satan Incarnate," "the Great Enemy," and "the Enemy of Islam and all Islamic peoples" (all shorthand for the United States). Ahmadinejad, a more spiritual man than Khamenei, suggested to NBC's Brian Williams in Tehran in late July that all the problems between the United States and Iran could be eliminated if Americans would just learn to live according to the dictates of the biblical and post-biblical prophets, who are all, according to Islamic theology, Muslim. Williams didn't appear to realize that Ahmadinejad was making a call for America's conversion. If he had realized it, he would probably have ignored it as perfunctory rhetoric of little real-world relevance.

But it is helpful to imagine the reverse: Suppose Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or John McCain were to call on Iranians to accept the teachings of Christ as practiced by America's Christians. Religiously, culturally, and politically the idea is unthinkable, of course. This ought to give us some idea of the chasm separating Americans and Europeans from the leadership of the Islamic Republic. This ought to tell Senator Obama and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that face-to-face "preparatory" meetings with Iranians are irrelevant: American diplomats could talk for years to Saeed Jalili, the Iranian nuclear negotiator who is in the entourage of Ahmadinejad, and it would not disturb the universe in which Jalili lives and prays.

This gap isn't just with Ahmadinejad, who some on the American left like to depict as a man without real power in Tehran. It's with the entire oligarchy that runs the Islamic Republic. Look at the use of the word dushman, "enemy," in the speeches of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. The usage is constant and nearly identical. The intensity of its use equals anything, I would argue, that ever came from Ruhollah Khomeini's anti-American pen (which was vastly more elegant). Ahmadinejad has done well in Iran's clerically dominated political system for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that he is Ali Khamenei's soulmate. Khamenei really hasn't had one since he became the rahbar, the guide for the Islamic Republic, on Khomeini's death in 1989. Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who are in many ways brothers-in-arms, who have depended upon each other since the early days of the revolution, do not appear to be spiritual kin in the way that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are.