The list is long of Occidentals who’ve fallen for Persia. This isn’t surprising. Compared with Arab lands save Egypt, Iran has a longer history—Hegel described the Persians as “the first Historic people”—and a more layered modern identity. Compared with the Turks, whose indefatigable martial spirit is reified in the unadorned stone power of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques, Iranians are more playful and mercurial. Isfahan’s Sheikh Loftallah Mosque, with its delicate polychrome tiles, its shifting, asymmetrical shapes radiating from the dome’s apex as a peacock, captures brilliantly the Persian love of complexity, synthesis, and whimsy. Its patron, Shah Abbas the Great, a curious, wine-loving, absolute monarch, captured the imagination of contemporary Europeans, including Shakespeare.
Stubbornly attached to their Indo-European language, the people of the Iranian plateau poured their genius into poetry; also art, architecture, and an eclectic blend of faiths, which captivated their Greek, Arab, Turkish, Mongol, and British conquerors. Much like English, which resists and absorbs everything thrown at it, Persian envelops. Before reaching manhood, Ottoman princes were forbidden to learn it—the language of diplomacy and high culture among Muslims throughout much of the medieval and modern periods—since the aesthetic pull and literary range of Persian could lead innocent, Turkish-speaking Sunni boys to Shiism, the faith of the empire’s most dangerous Muslim foe. It’s not surprising that the prophet Muhammad was depicted in human form in medieval Persian miniatures—a “sacrilegious” act that would get an artist jailed, probably executed, in today’s Islamic Republic.
Which brings us to the question: Why do so many foreign-policy types, after 34 years of seeing the revolution in action—seeing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei endlessly vent their loathing of the United States in the most sincere religious terms—stubbornly cling to the idea that the Islamic Republic and this country ought to be able to work out their differences? Analysis and policy should be divisible. A thorough examination of Khamenei’s words and actions reveals a tirelessly anti-American, terrorism-addicted Muslim paladin, chosen by divine fate and forged by personal suffering. Nonetheless, many big names in Iran policy still prefer containment of an Iranian nuke to preemption. The Brookings Institution’s Ken Pollack in his soon-to-be published book Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy advances a powerful, if ultimately unsatisfying, argument in favor of containment while limning a damning picture of the Islamic Republic. This is rare. Usually, arguments for engagement or containment follow more-fiction-than-fact portraits of the mullahs in power. Are Iran’s many Western apologists analytically challenged, deceitful, or just scared so stiff of another war in the Middle East that they secularize and sanitize the clerical regime?
Washington is now in a self-imposed lull on the Iranian nuclear question, awaiting the Islamic Republic’s presidential election on June 14. We know that this election is meaningless for the atomic program, that Khamenei—not Iran’s president, who will probably be personally approved by the supreme leader before the election—has controlled the nuclear dossier from the beginning. Hassan Rowhani, the former nuclear negotiator, a “moderate,” who openly bragged that Tehran had successfully prolonged negotiations to advance its atomic designs, was clear in his memoirs about who runs the show: Khamenei. The White House understandably wants to avoid the day when the International Atomic Energy Agency issues so damning a report on the Islamic Republic’s advance that the president and his senior advisers are forced to decide whether America preemptively strikes or acquiesces to a bomb in Khamenei’s hands.
A plethora of sanctions are scheduled to take effect on July 1, any or all of which can be waived by the president. The administration is currently trying to stall new sanctions legislation in the Senate. Secretary of State John Kerry wants, congressional sources say, more diplomatic running room, though this go-slow approach, tried before by the Europeans and the Americans, has stopped neither spinning centrifuges nor progress at the plutonium producing heavy-water plant at Arak.
So Many Centrifuges