The news that President Obama has sent a secret letter to Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei––apparently promising concessions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for help in defeating ISIS–– is a depressing reminder of how after nearly 40 years our leaders have not understood the Iranian Revolution. During the hostage crisis of 1979, Jimmy Carter sent left-wing former Attorney General Ramsay Clark to Tehran with a letter anxiously assuring the Ayatollah Khomeini that America desired good relations “based upon equality, mutual respect and friendship.” Khomeini refused even to meet with the envoys.
Such obvious contempt for our “outreach” should have been illuminating, but the same mistakes have recurred over the past 4 decades. But Obama has been the most energetic suitor of the mullahs, sending 4 letters to Khamenei, none directly answered. In May of 2009 he sent a personal letter to Khamenei calling for “cooperation in regional and bilateral relations.” Khamenei’s answer in June was to initiate a brutal crackdown on Iranians protesting the rigged presidential election. Obama’s response was to remain silent about this oppression lest he irritate the thuggish mullahs, who blamed the protests on American “agents” anyway. Even Carter’s phrase “mutual respect” has been chanted like some diplomatic spell that will transform religious fanatics into good global citizens. In his notorious June 2009 Cairo “apology” speech, Obama assured Iran, “We are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.” This latest letter repeats the same empty phrase.
But our president is nothing if not persistent. In October of 2009, it was revealed that Iran had failed to disclose a uranium enrichment facility in Qom. Obama commented on this obvious proof of Iran’s true intentions, “We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran,” and promised that the “offer stands” of “greater international integration if [Iran] lives up to its obligations.” Iran answered by increasing the pace of enrichment, helping the insurgents in Iraq kill our troops, and facilitating the movement and communications of al Qaeda with other jihadists.
Indeed, every concession and failure to respond forcefully to Iranian intransigence and aggression confirm its belief that Iran is strong and America weak. As Khamenei has said, “The reason why we are stronger is that [America] retreats step by step in all the arenas [in] which we and the Americans have confronted each other. But we do not retreat. Rather, we move forward. This is a sign of our superiority over the Americans.”
Given this long sorry history, how long will it take for our foreign policy geniuses to figure out that Iran’s theocrats don’t want better relations, or “mutual respect,” or “international integration,” or anything else from the infidel Great Satan and its Western minions, other than capitulation? The mullahs and their Republican Guard henchmen may lust for wealth and power as much as anyone, but the foundation of their behavior is a religious faith that promises Muslims power and dominance over those who refuse the call to convert to Islam and thus by definition are enemies of the faithful to be resisted and destroyed.
Given these spiritual imperatives, the material punishment of the regime through economic sanctions, particularly limited ones, is unlikely to have much effect. During the hostage crisis, mild sanctions and the threats of more serious ones were brushed away by Khomeini. The Economist at the time pointed out the obvious reason why: “The denial of material things is unlikely to have much effect on minds suffused with immaterial things.” Khomeini made this same point after the humiliating disaster of Carter’s half-hearted attempt to rescue the hostages in April 1980, when mullahs were televised worldwide poking their canes in the charred remains of 8 dead Americans. Speaking of the sandstorm that compromised the mission, Khomeini preached, “Those sand particles were divinely commissioned . . . Carter still has not comprehended what kind of people he is facing and what school of thought he is playing with. Our people is the people of blood and our school is the school of Jihad.”
With their eyes on Allah’s intentions for the faithful, the leaders of Iran see the acquisition of nuclear weapons as the most important means of achieving the global power and dominance their faith tells them they deserve as “the best of nations produced for mankind,” as the Koran says. Thus duplicitous diplomatic engagement and negotiation are tactics for buying time until the mullahs reach “nuclear latency,” the ability quickly to build a bomb. Every concession or offer of bribes from the West are seen not as an inducement to reciprocate in order to meet a mutually beneficial arrangement, but rather as signs of weakness and failure of nerve, evidence that the mullahs can win despite the power and wealth of the West. That’s because the Iranian leadership views international relations as resting not on cooperation or negotiation, but on raw power. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institute quotes from a hardline Iranian newspaper, “Our world is not a fair one and everyone gets as much power as he can, not for his power of reason or the adaptation of his request to the international laws, but by his bullying.” And the Iranians believe that their power politics serves the will of Allah.
Obama is not the first president who has completely failed to understand the true nature and motives of his adversary. FDR misunderstood “Uncle Joe” Stalin, and George Bush misread the eyes of Vladimir Putin. This mistake of diplomacy reflects the peculiar Western arrogant belief that the whole world is just like us and wants the same things we want––political freedom, leisure, material affluence, and peaceful relations with neighbors. Some Iranians may want those things too, but a critical mass wants obedience to Allah and his commands more. Obama’s endemic narcissism has made this flaw worse in his relations with the rest of the world, for he can’t believe that the leaders of other nations, many of them brutal realists indifferent to the opinions of the “international community,” aren’t as impressed as he is with his alleged brilliance and persuasive eloquence.
As a result we are on the brink of a dangerous realignment of the balance of power in the Middle East. Despite Iran’s continuing defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and its long record of lies and evasion, Obama allegedly has offered to raise the number of centrifuges enriching uranium from 4000 to 6000, bringing the mullahs closer to “nuclear latency”––in a regime that has officially been designated the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism; that has threatened genocide against Israel, our most important strategic asset in the region; and that for the last 40 years has stained its hands with American blood.
Rather than the ornament of his foreign policy legacy, as Obama hopes, his pursuit of a deal that will make Iran a nuclear power will be remembered as his Munich.
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