March 30, 2009 | The Weekly Standard

The Return of Weakness

President Obama means well. Iran doesn't.

In diplomacy and espionage, there is no worse mistake than “mirror-imaging,” that is, ascribing to foreigners your own actions and views. For Westerners this is especially debilitating, given our modern proclivity to assume that others pursue their interests in secular, material, and guilt-ridden ways. Confession is an important part of the Western tradition; self-criticism is less acute elsewhere. Americans, the British, the Spanish, and the French have written libraries about their own imperialistic sins; Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and Russians have not. In an unsuccessful effort to reach out to Iran's clerical regime in 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized for the actions of the entire Western world. Last week, in response to President Barack Obama's let's-talk greetings broadcast to Iran, theocratic overlord Ali Khamenei, “supreme leader” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, enumerated 30 years' worth of America's dastardly deeds against the Islamic revolution–but not a peccadillo that the clerical regime had committed against any Western country.

Looking overseas, many Americans are feeling guilty. George W. Bush and his wars have embarrassed Democrats and Republicans. So the Obama administration has tried to push the “reset” button, and not just with Russia. Nowhere has this American sense of guilt been more on display than in the Middle East: Obama has picked up where Bill Clinton left off, trying to engage diplomatically Iran and Syria, and perhaps down the road the Palestinian fundamentalist movement Hamas. Yet nowhere is guilt-fueled mirror-imaging more dangerous.

Washington is again putting U.S.-Iranian relations on the psychiatrist's couch, treating the mullahs as if they were something other than masters of Islamic machtpolitik. Obama's message to Khamenei emphasizes “mutual respect,” “shared hopes,” “common dreams,” and Iran's great historic “ability to build and create.” I would bet the national debt that the president and the supreme leader share not a single hope or dream that could possibly have any bearing on the relations between their two countries. Khamenei is a serious revolutionary cleric and a man of considerable personal integrity who has suffered severely for his beliefs (in 1981 a bomb blast mangled his right arm). He is a faithful son of the Islamic revolution.

In his public orations, Khamenei has regularly dreamed of Muslims' uniting in one line  .  .  .  amassing all the elements of their power to strengthen the Islamic community–learning and wisdom, prudence and vigilance, an historic sense of duty and commitment, and reliance and hope in the divine promise–so that it can attain glory, independence, and spiritual and material progress, and the enemy [the United States], in its pursuit of grandeur and the control of Muslim lands, can see defeat.

For Khamenei, there is no goal more divine than seeing America and her allies driven from the Middle East.

Khamenei has led revolutionary Iran since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. To fulfill God's promise and his own duty, Khamenei authorized the bombing attack on the United States at Khobar Towers (U.S. death toll: 19 servicemen) in 1996; aid to violent Islamist groups including al Qaeda (see the 9/11 Commission report), Hezbollah, and Hamas; the export to Iraq of Iranian-manufactured remote-controlled explosive devices and Iranian-trained assassination teams; ties with anti-American regimes abroad (President Chávez of Venezuela has visited four times); and the development of a nuclear weapons program. Khamenei–not Iran's colorful president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–turned the Islamic Republic into a turbo-charged engine of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, con-verted the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its thuggish, morals-enforcing appendage, the Basij, into major political players.

On Khamenei's watch, the Iranian reform movement, spearheaded by disaffected disciples of the revolution and university students, has been politically crushed and many of its most important members exiled, jailed, beaten, and, in the case of Saeed Hajjarian, a founding father of the clerical regime's intelligence service, shot in the head. As Iran's internal politics have gotten worse, however, Western hope for meaningful diplomacy with the regime has risen.

Thus, the eternal advocates of en–gagement counsel engaging Khamenei, who they insist is really a “conservative pragmatist.” Thoughtful Iran analysts have peered into the eyes of Khamenei (his speeches aren't helpful) and seen Boeing aircraft parts, oil and gas deals, pipelines, and eventually an American embassy in Tehran. They have not seen a man of God and politics whose cherished conception of a just world is inimical to both Democratic and Republican visions of what is right.

This hope attached to Khamenei and to dialogue is partly just a reaction against George W. Bush. Many feared Bush would attack Iran's nuclear facilities. “Diplomacy first, diplomacy only” became a mantra in Europe, since most Europeans would rather see the clerics go nuclear than have the United States (or Israel) do anything harsh to stop them. Most in the Obama administration no doubt share this view.

But misleading analysis easily follows: Europeans and Americans who are adamantly opposed to the use of force (or economy-crushing sanctions) naturally start to see “pragmatists” where they don't exist. Khamenei calls the United States “Satan Incarnate” and President Obama responds with a verse about brotherhood from the Persian Sufi poet Saadi. To respond otherwise would be to act like Bush. (Note to the White House: Revolutionary clerics don't appreciate Sufism, with its ecumenical call for brotherhood. They harass and suppress it.)

Much of Obama's outreach could be chalked up as harmless if the stakes weren't so high. The truth: The administration knows that it will probably fail to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy or sanctions. The only sanctions that could conceivably pull the regime to the negotiating table, freeze its nuclear program, and allow for inspections of its closed nuclear sites would be energy related. Stopping the export of gasoline to Iran (which cannot refine enough for its domestic market) could have a devastating effect on Iran's economy and public morale. But neither the Obama administration nor the Europeans like the “big stick” approach. In other words, the nuke is coming.

How alarming is that? Since 9/11, conversations about combating terrorism have revolved around non-state actors, a disposition reinforced by the war in Iraq and the controversy over Saddam Hussein's links to terrorists, in particular al Qaeda. Yet this disposition is unwise. Even the Bush administration never wanted to touch the 9/11 Commission report's revelations about Iranian ties to al Qaeda–impressed by al Qaeda's attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the mullahs reached out to Osama bin Laden–since to do so would supercharge any discussion of policy toward Tehran. So the question remains: Should the United States allow a virulently anti-American regime that knowingly aided al Qaeda to have an atomic bomb?

We don't know what the mullahs will do once they have a nuclear weapon. They may act as the Pakistanis did after they got theirs: much more aggressively. Pakistan's ruler Pervez Musharraf almost provoked a massive war with India over Kargil. Clerical Iran's conception of itself is far more grandiose than Pakistan's. Its support for anti-American terrorism is unrivaled among Middle Eastern states. Almost 30 years ago, Tehran reached out to Ayman al Zawahiri and his murderous band of Egyptian jihadists. It is highly likely that this contact led to Iran's later offer of assistance to al Qaeda.

Remember: The same individuals who brought us the Khobar Towers bombing are with us today. Their power is undiminished. If anything, their rhetoric against the United States–and certainly their lethal actions in Iraq and Afghanistan–are harsher than they were in the mid-1990s, when President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, with Khamenei by his side, appealed to Europeans for more investment and trade while sending assassination teams clandestinely to kill Iranian dissidents in Europe.

The Obama administration now runs the risk of appearing weak in its dealings with Tehran. Whether through mirror-imaging or conflict avoidance, it has set the stage for an embarrassing denouement. Unless Washington can convince itself, and then the Europeans, to implement draconian sanctions, Iran will get its nuke. Once that happens, the appeasement (or engagement) reflex will come powerfully into play. The Islamic Republic's appetite to push its newly obtained strategic advantage could prove irresistible.

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.