On July 30, Ali Khamenei demolished what was left of George W. Bush's Iran policy. Iran's clerical overlord also put paid to Senator Barack Obama's dreams of tête-à-tête, stop-the-nukes diplomacy. Ten days earlier the Americans, British, French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese had gathered in Geneva hoping to convince Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. True to form, Khamenei told them all to stick it. The Islamic Republic will not cease and desist: "Taking one step back against the arrogant powers [the West] will lead them to take one step forward," Khamenei replied. So much for the "significant" presence of William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who went to Geneva to show Tehran and the Europeans the United States' willingness to have senior-level contacts with the clerical regime. (Note to the American left: If Ali Khamenei had even once sent a secret senior emissary to Washington expressing his conditional willingness to restore diplomatic relations, we would now have an embassy in Tehran. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Bush Senior all would have--quite rightly--leapt at the opportunity.)
The mission by Burns, an accomplished "realist" diplomat, is exactly what Obama's campaign had in mind when they said that a President Obama would approve "preparatory" meetings with Iranian officials before he sought to have a face-to-face with a worthy counterpart, which given the Iranian political system means either Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of Iran's Expediency Council and the cleric who got Iran's clandestine nuclear-weapons program rolling. Since the Illinois senator first broached the idea of personal diplomacy during a Democratic primary debate, Khamenei has unleashed a barrage of speeches against "Satan Incarnate," "the Great Enemy," and "the Enemy of Islam and all Islamic peoples" (all shorthand for the United States). Ahmadinejad, a more spiritual man than Khamenei, suggested to NBC's Brian Williams in Tehran in late July that all the problems between the United States and Iran could be eliminated if Americans would just learn to live according to the dictates of the biblical and post-biblical prophets, who are all, according to Islamic theology, Muslim. Williams didn't appear to realize that Ahmadinejad was making a call for America's conversion. If he had realized it, he would probably have ignored it as perfunctory rhetoric of little real-world relevance.
But it is helpful to imagine the reverse: Suppose Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or John McCain were to call on Iranians to accept the teachings of Christ as practiced by America's Christians. Religiously, culturally, and politically the idea is unthinkable, of course. This ought to give us some idea of the chasm separating Americans and Europeans from the leadership of the Islamic Republic. This ought to tell Senator Obama and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that face-to-face "preparatory" meetings with Iranians are irrelevant: American diplomats could talk for years to Saeed Jalili, the Iranian nuclear negotiator who is in the entourage of Ahmadinejad, and it would not disturb the universe in which Jalili lives and prays.
This gap isn't just with Ahmadinejad, who some on the American left like to depict as a man without real power in Tehran. It's with the entire oligarchy that runs the Islamic Republic. Look at the use of the word dushman, "enemy," in the speeches of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. The usage is constant and nearly identical. The intensity of its use equals anything, I would argue, that ever came from Ruhollah Khomeini's anti-American pen (which was vastly more elegant). Ahmadinejad has done well in Iran's clerically dominated political system for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that he is Ali Khamenei's soulmate. Khamenei really hasn't had one since he became the rahbar, the guide for the Islamic Republic, on Khomeini's death in 1989. Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who are in many ways brothers-in-arms, who have depended upon each other since the early days of the revolution, do not appear to be spiritual kin in the way that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are.
Iran's current president and the rahbar are very different men with dissimilar backgrounds (no layman can ever truly be one with an alim, a mullah), but they are very close in how they judge right and wrong (they hate, though tolerate, corruption among their allies), in the way their Islamic-Iranian identity wraps around them, in their perception of threats--particularly the cultural threat of the United States and the West. If anything, it is Khamenei who is the more hardcore, whose spiritualism is less colorful, less peasant-playful, and more (in a Western sense) overtly and crudely political. Ahmadinejad can happily imagine women playing and enjoying soccer; with Khamenei, the image is more of women in chadors with assault rifles on their shoulders shouting anti-American slogans. Ahmadinejad probably doesn't mind this image either, but he would allow the women time off to play soccer.
It's a good guess that both of these men really want to tell the West, in earthy language, that they are going to get a nuclear weapon and there is nothing the Americans, the Europeans, and the Israelis can do to stop them. When both men talk about justice, and they mention it constantly, they are thinking of the imbalance in the world between devout Muslims, who follow the true path of God, and infidels, with their damnable technical superiority. By acquiring nuclear weapons, these men intend to restore that balance, allowing real Muslims, especially the faithful Iranian vanguard, to recapture the high ground throughout the Islamic world. Ahmadinejad was glad to see Ambassador Burns at the Geneva meeting not because he wants to reach a compromise with the United States, and welcomes the new, post-axis-of-evil "flexibility" of the Bush administration, but because he sees the Geneva meeting as another step in the West's process of conceding a bomb to Iran. Ahmadinejad's triumphalism, which is the mirror-image of Khamenei's more tight-lipped glee, overwhelmed Brian Williams, who was reduced to asking the same questions repeatedly. When you think you've won, you don't need to pretend with an American news anchor that you might, just possibly, compromise and give the West hope that diplomacy can continue.
There is yet a slight chance the Europeans can revive the Bush-Obama diplomatic track. But the Europeans would have to do what they have so far refused to do and may no longer be able to do: Immediately impose economy-crushing sanctions on the Islamic Republic (Tehran has been rapidly moving its financial assets out of Europe). Russia, China, and India--the key states in developing a suffocating, worldwide sanctions regime--are unlikely to help since they all seem to have concluded that a clerical Iran brought to its knees by the West is worse than an oil-rich, nuclear-armed (and grateful) Islamic Republic. With their dogged efforts to increase centrifuge production (two years ago Iran had one cascade of 164 centrifuges; now it may have 6,000 spinning), Khamenei and Ahmadinejad act as if they will soon have a weapon. And once the Iranians get the bomb and put, or just imply that they are putting, nuclear-tipped warheads on their ballistic missiles, how much resolve will the Europeans have to confront Tehran? Given contemporary European sentiments and habits, isn't an effort to placate Tehran more likely?
Even under Angela Merkel, a relatively pro-American chancellor, the Germans are much more comfortable with a policy of Ostpolitik towards Tehran, which satisfies both Germany's enormous commercial appetites and its pacifist sensibilities. And the Spanish and the Italians, who have substantial commercial dealings with Tehran? They have military bases in Herat province in western Afghanistan, and we have already caught them quietly negotiating with the Taliban in an effort to avoid casualties. Imagine if Iran, which is just over the border, were to put military pressure on them? Would they be inclined to look at the big picture or the small one, which has more Spanish and Italian body bags being flown home? And if the Germans cave, the French, who have been the most farsighted in discerning the fearsome strategic ramifications of a nuclear clerical regime, will probably, eventually, go with them.
It is now entirely reasonable to conjecture that Tehran will have nuclear-armed missiles before the United States is able to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. A year ago, the Bush administration, despite its rhetoric on the issue, had a rather uncoordinated and lackadaisical approach to advancing European missile defense. (The State Department and the Pentagon seemed to be representing two different countries.) Public diplomacy on the issue in Poland and the Czech Republic has been abysmal. The placement of interceptors in Poland may not happen because of differences that have arisen between Washington and Warsaw; putting these interceptors in Lithuania, which apparently has signaled its willingness to take them, may prove more difficult than many in Washington imagine; and the required radar base in the Czech Republic may not happen either, as the parliamentary vote in November on the deal signed this July is in danger of not passing. The Czech government needs 101 votes for the radar base to open; it has exactly 101 votes. Senator Obama has certainly not helped the cause of the Atlanticists in Prague who have put their political necks out with this unpopular issue (the Czechs' neutralist bent rivals that of the Swiss) by his refusal to back the radar installation. Support from Obama might prove crucial in maintaining left-wing Czech support for the radar sites. For a presidential candidate who spends so much time talking about the growing Iranian threat, his failure to back European missile defense--a position the Democratic party will eventually embrace since it will have nowhere else to go short of preemptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities--shows the strategically underdeveloped nature of the Obama political team. Trumping John McCain with a loud endorsement of missile defense is also not a bad domestic political maneuver.
Even with a functioning antiballistic missile system in place to stiffen European spines, the mullahs may well be able to split the alliance once they have nukes. The allure of Iranian oil and gas is just too great. With Tehran suggesting that the Europeans have nothing to fear so long as they distance themselves from the United States in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, an American containment strategy on Iran, which necessarily has to involve the Europeans if it's going to have any economic teeth, may well be stillborn.
Thoughtful Democrats have realized the havoc the Iranians could cause in the Middle East once they obtain nuclear weapons. But few Democrats--or Republicans, for that matter--have awakened to the potential for Iranian nuclear arms to destroy the very transatlantic ties that both Obama and McCain say need to be strengthened to confront the many problems before us. When he was president of Iran, Rafsanjani began a divide-and-conquer strategy toward the West, trying to bring in the Europeans for investment and trade, while confronting the United States and lethally attacking dissidents at home and abroad. This approach was especially important to the development of Iran's then entirely clandestine nuclear-weapons program, since Rafsanjani didn't want the West lining up against Iran at a time when the clerical regime needed to build up its program to a "break-out" potential. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad abandoned Rafsanjani's and his successor Mohammad Khatami's cautious and slow approach to developing nuclear weapons. For a time, this abrupt change caused concern in Tehran that the United States and Europe might actually deploy economy-crushing sanctions or, even worse, that the Bush administration might order a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before the enrichment process had sufficiently advanced.
But the fear of George W. Bush has vanished. And we will now see whether Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have a correct understanding of Europe--whether it really still matters. Ironically, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's confrontational strategy could prove more effective at dividing the Europeans from the Americans than did the wry smile of Rafsanjani or even the warm, soft handshakes of Mohammad Khatami.
Yet, the Europeans might still surprise themselves and us. Concern about the Islamic Republic's nuclear quest is palpable in Paris, London, and Berlin. Senior French diplomats who have been party to the EU-3 talks like to relate how Iran's European embassies are paying their bills with big wads of cash these days since they can no longer transfer the required monies through embargoed banks. The Europeans might still be able to unleash a tsunami of sanctions, sanctions that even the Italians could be shamed into joining. And it is possible that George W. Bush might again follow his better instincts and ramp up the bellicose language, suggesting that he will indeed strike before leaving office. It is even possible that Barack Obama could come to appreciate that his Iran policy has utterly collapsed, too. With Khamenei, loudly advertised machtpolitik is an indispensable inducement to a peaceful suspension of uranium enrichment. Perhaps the contemplation of his administration having to figure out a containment strategy against a nuclear-armed Iranian theocracy might convince the senator of the need now for a bit of eloquent bellicosity.
And John McCain, who has been curbing his more aggressive instincts for fear of sounding too warlike for an electorate spooked by Iraq, might again powerfully suggest that diplomacy without the threat of force has no chance against mullahs who view the Lebanese Hezbollah as their beloved children. The Bush administration can have as many "one-time meetings" as Secretary of State Rice wants with Iranian officials--there is nothing wrong with these encounters, or the discussion of an American-manned interests section in Tehran, so long as no one believes that they reveal latent moderation among Tehran's ruling elite. In the containment of the Soviet Union, the United States often made the Cold War quite warm. Apply the same logic: Bring back the aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf.
A betting man would, of course, go the other way. More likely, we will get to see whether an Obama or McCain administration has any idea of how to contain a nuclear-armed, oil-rich theocracy willing to deploy terrorism and guerrilla warfare to ensure that "justice" is brought to the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is assuming that the Israelis--increasingly desperate as they contemplate their future opposite nuclear-armed Muslim militants who see the Jewish state as an insult to God--don't strike first and change everyone's planning. Perhaps it is not too late to breathe new life and urgency into the critical need for a united Western front against Tehran.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.