The Magazine

The Return of Weakness

President Obama means well. Iran doesn't.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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In diplomacy and espionage, there is no worse mistake than "mirror-imaging," that is, ascribing to foreigners your own actions and views. For Westerners this is especially debilitating, given our modern proclivity to assume that others pursue their interests in secular, material, and guilt-ridden ways. Confession is an important part of the Western tradition; self-criticism is less acute elsewhere. Americans, the British, the Spanish, and the French have written libraries about their own imperialistic sins; Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and Russians have not. In an unsuccessful effort to reach out to Iran's clerical regime in 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized for the actions of the entire Western world. Last week, in response to President Barack Obama's let's-talk greetings broadcast to Iran, theocratic overlord Ali Khamenei, "supreme leader" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, enumerated 30 years' worth of America's dastardly deeds against the Islamic revolution--but not a peccadillo that the clerical regime had committed against any Western country.

Looking overseas, many Americans are feeling guilty. George W. Bush and his wars have embarrassed Democrats and Republicans. So the Obama administration has tried to push the "reset" button, and not just with Russia. Nowhere has this American sense of guilt been more on display than in the Middle East: Obama has picked up where Bill Clinton left off, trying to engage diplomatically Iran and Syria, and perhaps down the road the Palestinian fundamentalist movement Hamas. Yet nowhere is guilt-fueled mirror-imaging more dangerous.

Washington is again putting U.S.-Iranian relations on the psychiatrist's couch, treating the mullahs as if they were something other than masters of Islamic machtpolitik. Obama's message to Khamenei emphasizes "mutual respect," "shared hopes," "common dreams," and Iran's great historic "ability to build and create." I would bet the national debt that the president and the supreme leader share not a single hope or dream that could possibly have any bearing on the relations between their two countries. Khamenei is a serious revolutionary cleric and a man of considerable personal integrity who has suffered severely for his beliefs (in 1981 a bomb blast mangled his right arm). He is a faithful son of the Islamic revolution.

In his public orations, Khamenei has regularly dreamed of Muslims'

uniting in one line  .  .  .  amassing all the elements of their power to strengthen the Islamic community--learning and wisdom, prudence and vigilance, an historic sense of duty and commitment, and reliance and hope in the divine promise--so that it can attain glory, independence, and spiritual and material progress, and the enemy [the United States], in its pursuit of grandeur and the control of Muslim lands, can see defeat.

For Khamenei, there is no goal more divine than seeing America and her allies driven from the Middle East.

Khamenei has led revolutionary Iran since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. To fulfill God's promise and his own duty, Khamenei authorized the bombing attack on the United States at Khobar Towers (U.S. death toll: 19 servicemen) in 1996; aid to violent Islamist groups including al Qaeda (see the 9/11 Commission report), Hezbollah, and Hamas; the export to Iraq of Iranian-manufactured remote-controlled explosive devices and Iranian-trained assassination teams; ties with anti-American regimes abroad (President Chávez of Venezuela has visited four times); and the development of a nuclear weapons program. Khamenei--not Iran's colorful president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--turned the Islamic Republic into a turbo-charged engine of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, con-verted the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its thuggish, morals-enforcing appendage, the Basij, into major political players.

On Khamenei's watch, the Iranian reform movement, spearheaded by disaffected disciples of the revolution and university students, has been politically crushed and many of its most important members exiled, jailed, beaten, and, in the case of Saeed Hajjarian, a founding father of the clerical regime's intelligence service, shot in the head. As Iran's internal politics have gotten worse, however, Western hope for meaningful diplomacy with the regime has risen.