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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The clerical regime has never abandoned its ecumenical outreach to Sunni militants. American success, or more likely failure, in Iraq or Afghanistan could be a powerful spur to Iran to strike. State-supported terrorism, which would be both denied and nuclear-protected, could come ferociously back at us. It was a truly nervy move for Damascus, Tehran's closest Arab ally, to have the North Koreans build a uranium-processing plant (the one the Israelis bombed in September 2007). But then, terrorist-supporting "rogue states," by definition, do nervy, unexpected things.

It is useful to remember what has motivated the Iranians to talk in the past: fear. Fear that the Islamic revolution would collapse brought Khomeini to the negotiating table with Iraq in 1988. And, most tellingly, there is 2003, when Tehran made an overture--how serious is unclear--to the United States via the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. To state the obvious: After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Tehran was terrified that President Bush might eliminate another member of the "axis of evil," the one that had just been discovered to have a massive underground uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. It was fear, not "mutual respect," that provoked some within the clerical regime to reach out to Washington.

Severe tension in foreign affairs is often salutary. Although it is out of fashion to say so, American hard and soft power in the Muslim Middle East has been mostly a force for good. For much of the last 30 years, U.S. power has helped to check Iran's revolutionary potential and offered a seductive alternative to the mullahs' spirit-crunching theocratic state.

The United States, not Europe, became the focus of Iranians' profound fascination with the West. The strongest, most explicit internal denunciation of revolutionary Islamist extremism ever made was that of the cleric Abdullah Nouri, interior minister under presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. A faithful and loving disciple of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Khomeini's "defrocked" one-time successor, Ali Montazeri, Nouri was put on trial in 1999 for challenging the regime's monopoly of power and faith. More than anyone before or since, he mocked the regime's fear of the United States, suggesting that Islam really ought to be able to withstand the restoration of diplomatic relations with Washington. Nouri was nearly killed in jail, where he spent about four years.

Iran's reform movement has been most unnerving to the regime's hard core when advanced by famous foot soldiers of the Islamic revolution like Nouri. But it is in great part a product of the enormous, healthy tension that has existed between the United States and the Islamic Republic. The denial of legitimacy by the United States--and secondarily by Europe, which has sometimes treated Iran's female-oppressing, dissident-killing clerics as moral reprobates--has had an effect inside the country, provoking important debates about Iran's place in the world and its politico-religious ethics. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual survival of the reform movement if the United States had not denied the mullahs the respect that they demand from their own citizenry and increasingly do not receive.

It is clear that President Obama means well, yet his good intentions could end up accomplishing the exact opposite of what he wants. Irony is, of course, a Persian forte. It is less appreciated in the United States.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.