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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Iran's current president and the rahbar are very different men with dissimilar backgrounds (no layman can ever truly be one with an alim, a mullah), but they are very close in how they judge right and wrong (they hate, though tolerate, corruption among their allies), in the way their Islamic-Iranian identity wraps around them, in their perception of threats--particularly the cultural threat of the United States and the West. If anything, it is Khamenei who is the more hardcore, whose spiritualism is less colorful, less peasant-playful, and more (in a Western sense) overtly and crudely political. Ahmadinejad can happily imagine women playing and enjoying soccer; with Khamenei, the image is more of women in chadors with assault rifles on their shoulders shouting anti-American slogans. Ahmadinejad probably doesn't mind this image either, but he would allow the women time off to play soccer.

It's a good guess that both of these men really want to tell the West, in earthy language, that they are going to get a nuclear weapon and there is nothing the Americans, the Europeans, and the Israelis can do to stop them. When both men talk about justice, and they mention it constantly, they are thinking of the imbalance in the world between devout Muslims, who follow the true path of God, and infidels, with their damnable technical superiority. By acquiring nuclear weapons, these men intend to restore that balance, allowing real Muslims, especially the faithful Iranian vanguard, to recapture the high ground throughout the Islamic world. Ahmadinejad was glad to see Ambassador Burns at the Geneva meeting not because he wants to reach a compromise with the United States, and welcomes the new, post-axis-of-evil "flexibility" of the Bush administration, but because he sees the Geneva meeting as another step in the West's process of conceding a bomb to Iran. Ahmadinejad's triumphalism, which is the mirror-image of Khamenei's more tight-lipped glee, overwhelmed Brian Williams, who was reduced to asking the same questions repeatedly. When you think you've won, you don't need to pretend with an American news anchor that you might, just possibly, compromise and give the West hope that diplomacy can continue.

There is yet a slight chance the Europeans can revive the Bush-Obama diplomatic track. But the Europeans would have to do what they have so far refused to do and may no longer be able to do: Immediately impose economy-crushing sanctions on the Islamic Republic (Tehran has been rapidly moving its financial assets out of Europe). Russia, China, and India--the key states in developing a suffocating, worldwide sanctions regime--are unlikely to help since they all seem to have concluded that a clerical Iran brought to its knees by the West is worse than an oil-rich, nuclear-armed (and grateful) Islamic Republic. With their dogged efforts to increase centrifuge production (two years ago Iran had one cascade of 164 centrifuges; now it may have 6,000 spinning), Khamenei and Ahmadinejad act as if they will soon have a weapon. And once the Iranians get the bomb and put, or just imply that they are putting, nuclear-tipped warheads on their ballistic missiles, how much resolve will the Europeans have to confront Tehran? Given contemporary European sentiments and habits, isn't an effort to placate Tehran more likely?

Even under Angela Merkel, a relatively pro-American chancellor, the Germans are much more comfortable with a policy of Ostpolitik towards Tehran, which satisfies both Germany's enormous commercial appetites and its pacifist sensibilities. And the Spanish and the Italians, who have substantial commercial dealings with Tehran? They have military bases in Herat province in western Afghanistan, and we have already caught them quietly negotiating with the Taliban in an effort to avoid casualties. Imagine if Iran, which is just over the border, were to put military pressure on them? Would they be inclined to look at the big picture or the small one, which has more Spanish and Italian body bags being flown home? And if the Germans cave, the French, who have been the most farsighted in discerning the fearsome strategic ramifications of a nuclear clerical regime, will probably, eventually, go with them.