The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Waypoint

Over the past few years, I’ve argued that entering into negotiations with the Islamofascist leadership in Iran is a fool's errand. The Mullahs are experts at jerking around western diplomats, doing just enough to keep talks going, although doing nothing substantive in the end. As a consequence, the EU has spent years trying to move Iran away from the development of nuclear weapons—all to no avail. The UN has imposed weak sanctions—all to no avail. The US, using a bogus NIE report as its excuse, has decided not to move against Iran militarily. And so, Iran continues on the road to nukes.

In any interesting opinion piece in the NYT, Reuel Marc Gerecht argues in favor of negotiations:
Critics of any discussions might respond that the Iranians might say yes, but to only low-level talks in Switzerland, not in Washington and Tehran. In so doing, the mullahs could bind the United States to meaningless, stalling discussions while the regime perfected uranium enrichment, increased the range and accuracy of its ballistic missiles and advanced its nuclear warhead designs.

But so what? Minus the direct talks, this is more or less what is happening now. Would a President John McCain tolerate pointless discussions? Probably not. Would Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? Perhaps. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton may well prefer to see the clerical regime go nuclear than strike it preventively. But if that is where they would go, their opponents can do little about it. The only thing that could conceivably change their minds would be direct talks on the big issues separating the two countries. The mullahs have a way of driving their foreign interlocutors nuts. Just ask the European negotiators who’ve had to deal with them. Meeting Iranian leaders is perhaps the best way to turn doves into hawks.

For far too long, the United States has failed to wage a war of ideas with the Iranian regime over the proposal that scares them the most: the reopening of the American Embassy. Washington has the biggest bully pulpit in the world, and we are faced with a clerical foe that constantly rails against the intrusion of American values into the bloodstream of Iranian society. There are profound social, cultural and political differences among Iran’s ruling elites, let alone between that class and ordinary Iranians. Some of these differences could conceivably have a major effect on the progress of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. And the way to make these differences increasingly acute is to apply American soft and hard power.

Ayatollah Khamenei needs to be put off balance, as he was in 1997 when Mr. Khatami unexpectedly tapped into a huge groundswell of popular discontent and became president. What we need now is a psychological repeat of 1997: a shock to the clerical system that again opens Iran to serious debate.

When dealing with the mullahs, it is always wise to follow the lead of one of Iran’s most audacious clerical dissidents, former Interior Minister Abdallah Nuri. In 1999, he mocked the regime for its organic fear of the United States. Is the revolution’s Islam so weak, he said, that it cannot sustain the restoration of relations with the United States?

It would be riveting in Tehran — and millions of Iranians would watch on satellite TV — if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged the regime in this way: Islam is a great faith; the United States has relations with all Muslim nations except the Islamic Republic; we have diplomatic relations with Hugo Chávez and American diplomats in Havana. Why does the Islamic Republic fear us so? Is the regime so fragile? President Khatami repeatedly said that he wanted a “dialogue of civilizations.” The United States should finally say, “O.K., let’s start.”

If the Bush administration were to use this sort of diplomatic jujitsu on the ruling clerics, it could convulse their world. No, this is absolutely no guarantee that Tehran will stop, or even suspend, uranium enrichment. But a new approach would certainly put the United States on offense and Iran on defense. We would, at least, have the unquestioned moral and political high ground. And from there, it would be a lot easier for the next administration, if it must, to stop militarily the mullahs’ quest for the bomb.

Events often overtake positions, and Gerecht has, in this insightful op-ed piece, convinced me it’s time to change my long-standing position on negotiation with Iran. Not because we’ll modify Iran’s belligerence through negotiations. We will not. But because it is an absolutely critical first step toward accomplishing our final goal—to disarm Iran's nuclear capability. It will, if it is properly conducted, throw the mad-Mullahs off-balance. It can, if properly publicized inside Iran, create unrest among some of Iran’s young people. Most important, it has become a mandatory waypoint on a journey that will lead, I am almost certain, to dangerous conflict down the road.