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WikiLeaks, Iran, and Obama

It’s hardly news that Tehran is up to no good.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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In March 2009, Obama made a big Iran speech, in which he called for an “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” and quoted from the 13th-century poet Saadi to emphasize his good will and appreciation for things Persian (“The children of Adam are limbs of one body, Which God created from one essence”). He undoubtedly believed that “negative preconceptions”—Obama used the phrase in a widely watched Al-Arabiya television interview six days after his inauguration—lay at the heart of the tension between Iran and the United States. Not incompatible ideas and ideals, but “negative preconceptions.” President Obama apparently thought he could do a better job than his predecessors of lifting the veil of American ignorance. He was willing to try even though engagement with “repressive regimes,” as he noted in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, “lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.”

But the problem for President Obama, then and now, is that Ali Khamenei and his inner circle really like to kill Americans. They had relatively few opportunities to do so before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those wars have brought American targets near. The Iranians are killing Americans not as Persian dynasties once fought the intrusions of Byzantines from the West and marauding Turkic horsemen from the East, because they are invaders. They’re targeting Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan because they can do so easily. It doesn’t help that Washington has been trying to establish in Iraq a Shiite-led democratic system that, if it starts to function properly, will complicate Khamenei’s despotic rule in Shiite Iran. We may not see much significance in the fact that the regime-shaking, pro-democracy Green Movement developed after America established “outposts” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Khamenei and his guards undoubtedly do. 

President Obama’s appeal for direct, unconditional talks was upsetting to Khamenei—his “Satan incarnate” response soon followed—because it reinforced and amplified the all-consuming internal Iranian debate about authenticity and cultural collaboration. Can you be a good Iranian Muslim and not loathe the United States? Can you be a good Muslim and also say, as former president Khatami does, that the Western tradition of liberal democracy has actually developed better protections for many important human rights than has Islamic civilization? Can you be a good Muslim and say, as the respected 74-year-old dissident cleric Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari does, that Iran—the Muslim world—needs a revolution in religious thinking that would free the government from the scriptural dictates of the Holy Law and free the faithful from the politicized clergy? Or must you believe, as Khamenei does, that “there is no way to preserve the [Islamic] revolution except by resisting the United States” and all the insidious things it represents? 

Obama sallied forth into a land in the midst of a cultural counterrevolution and didn’t know it. He has had difficulty grasping the ideological nature of the conflict between the United States and Iran in part because he doesn’t see the ideological war within Islam itself. If he did grasp it, the worldview expressed in his “New Beginning” Cairo speech in June 2009 would unravel. If devout Iranians define their Islamic identity as implacably hostile to the United States and Western culture, little running room is left for the president’s felicitous intentions. It makes Tehran’s possession of nuclear weapons more problematic.

Although the administration is almost giddy about the success of its sanctions policy, which is hurting the regime economically and spiritually, Khamenei is likely to win the nuclear tug-of-war with the West: Despite the pain, he’ll probably get the bomb. And as Tehran gets closer to possessing a nuclear weapon, overcoming all the obstacles the West has thrown in its way, there is a serious danger that hubris will get the better of Khamenei and his men. 

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