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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Thus, the eternal advocates of en--gagement counsel engaging Khamenei, who they insist is really a "conservative pragmatist." Thoughtful Iran analysts have peered into the eyes of Khamenei (his speeches aren't helpful) and seen Boeing aircraft parts, oil and gas deals, pipelines, and eventually an American embassy in Tehran. They have not seen a man of God and politics whose cherished conception of a just world is inimical to both Democratic and Republican visions of what is right.

This hope attached to Khamenei and to dialogue is partly just a reaction against George W. Bush. Many feared Bush would attack Iran's nuclear facilities. "Diplomacy first, diplomacy only" became a mantra in Europe, since most Europeans would rather see the clerics go nuclear than have the United States (or Israel) do anything harsh to stop them. Most in the Obama administration no doubt share this view.

But misleading analysis easily follows: Europeans and Americans who are adamantly opposed to the use of force (or economy-crushing sanctions) naturally start to see "pragmatists" where they don't exist. Khamenei calls the United States "Satan Incarnate" and President Obama responds with a verse about brotherhood from the Persian Sufi poet Saadi. To respond otherwise would be to act like Bush. (Note to the White House: Revolutionary clerics don't appreciate Sufism, with its ecumenical call for brotherhood. They harass and suppress it.)

Much of Obama's outreach could be chalked up as harmless if the stakes weren't so high. The truth: The administration knows that it will probably fail to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy or sanctions. The only sanctions that could conceivably pull the regime to the negotiating table, freeze its nuclear program, and allow for inspections of its closed nuclear sites would be energy related. Stopping the export of gasoline to Iran (which cannot refine enough for its domestic market) could have a devastating effect on Iran's economy and public morale. But neither the Obama administration nor the Europeans like the "big stick" approach. In other words, the nuke is coming.

How alarming is that? Since 9/11, conversations about combating terrorism have revolved around non-state actors, a disposition reinforced by the war in Iraq and the controversy over Saddam Hussein's links to terrorists, in particular al Qaeda. Yet this disposition is unwise. Even the Bush administration never wanted to touch the 9/11 Commission report's revelations about Iranian ties to al Qaeda--impressed by al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the mullahs reached out to Osama bin Laden--since to do so would supercharge any discussion of policy toward Tehran. So the question remains: Should the United States allow a virulently anti-American regime that knowingly aided al Qaeda to have an atomic bomb?

We don't know what the mullahs will do once they have a nuclear weapon. They may act as the Pakistanis did after they got theirs: much more aggressively. Pakistan's ruler Pervez Musharraf almost provoked a massive war with India over Kargil. Clerical Iran's conception of itself is far more grandiose than Pakistan's. Its support for anti-American terrorism is unrivaled among Middle Eastern states. Almost 30 years ago, Tehran reached out to Ayman al Zawahiri and his murderous band of Egyptian jihadists. It is highly likely that this contact led to Iran's later offer of assistance to al Qaeda.

Remember: The same individuals who brought us the Khobar Towers bombing are with us today. Their power is undiminished. If anything, their rhetoric against the United States--and certainly their lethal actions in Iraq and Afghanistan--are harsher than they were in the mid-1990s, when President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with Khamenei by his side, appealed to Europeans for more investment and trade while sending assassination teams clandestinely to kill Iranian dissidents in Europe.

The Obama administration now runs the risk of appearing weak in its dealings with Tehran. Whether through mirror-imaging or conflict avoidance, it has set the stage for an embarrassing denouement. Unless Washington can convince itself, and then the Europeans, to implement draconian sanctions, Iran will get its nuke. Once that happens, the appeasement (or engagement) reflex will come powerfully into play. The Islamic Republic's appetite to push its newly obtained strategic advantage could prove irresistible.