Fighting Words

Don’t Let the Mullahs Run Out the Clock

Obama must talk directly to the Iranian people.

It’s strange how some totalitarian types feel the urge to be blunt and honest, even almost confessional. I call as my witness the senior member of the Robert Mugabe coterie who was quoted in the New York Times on Feb. 11 concerning the sham swearing-in of Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister of Zimbabwe. After the ceremony, according to Celia W. Dugger’s report:

[A] veteran ZANU-PF official who belongs to the party’s politburo said of Mr. Tsvangirai, speaking on the understanding that he would not be quoted by name: “He will not last. I swear to you. We just want to buy time.”

I thought that I knew that, but it’s often useful to have one’s suspicions confirmed.

Now, does anyone—I mean anyone at all—imagine that the Iranian government’s flirtation with “direct talks” is anything—anything at all—but a precisely similar attempt to run out the clock while the centrifuges spin and to buy (or, more accurately, to waste) time until sufficient fissile material is ready and the mask can be thrown off?

Estimates differ, but it seems quite plausible that Iran will be able to make some such announcement before the end of this year. That would mean that all international agreements, all negotiations with bodies like the European Union, all “inspections” by the International Atomic Energy Agency had been, in effect, farcical and void. It would mean being laughed at by the mullahs in the here and now. And it would involve, for the rest of the future, having to treat them with exaggerated politeness. What a wonderful world that would be.

For decades, we have wondered what might happen when or if an apocalyptic weapon came into the hands of a messianic group or irrational regime. We are surely now quite close to finding out. I am not one of those who believe that the mullahs will immediately try to incinerate the Jewish state. This is for several reasons. First, the Iranian theocracy is fat and corrupt and runs a potentially wealthy country in such a way as to enrich only itself. A nuclear conflict with Israel would be—in a grimly literal sense—the very last thing that it would embark upon. Second, and even taking into account the officially messianic and jihadist rhetoric of the regime, it remains the case that a thermonuclear weapon detonated on the Zionist foe would also annihilate the Palestinians and destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. (Even Saddam Hussein at his craziest recognized this fact, promising with uncharacteristic modesty only to “burn up half of Israel” with the weapons of mass destruction that he then boasted of possessing.)

Nor, I think, would the mullahs hand over their hard-won nuclear devices to a proxy party such as Hezbollah or seek to make a nuclear confrontation with the United States or Western Europe. What they almost certainly will do, however, is use the possession of nuclear weapons for some sort of nuclear blackmail against the neighboring gulf states, most of them Arab and Sunni rather than Persian and Shiite, but at least one of them (Bahrain) with a large Shiite population and a close geographical propinquity to Iran. Already you hear the odd rumble in hard-line circles in Tehran to the effect that Bahrain ought properly to be part of the Persian motherland. Imagine if Saddam Hussein had acquired a nuke beforeinvading Kuwait. (This is why so many Arab governments and newspapers have been so tepid about supporting Iran’s proxies Hamas and Hezbollah in the most recent confrontations with Israel.)

Faced with the appalling contingency of regional nuclear bullying disguised as “strategic ambiguity,” the Bush administration managed, as so often, to achieve the worst of both worlds. It used to be that Bush officials, when asked about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, would reply in a dark and meaningful manner, “We will not leave this problem to the next administration.” But, as you may have noticed … Still, one has to hope that the Obama administration does not make the opposite mistake and substitute a “make nice” policy for a policy that displayed neither soft speech nor the big stick. In that instance also, the Iranian reactors continued to hum and the centrifuges to whirl while in the wings, the missiles were also being acquired or tested (and something very odd was happening at a North Korean-built Syrian reactor site nearby).

The idea of direct and transparent negotiations with the Iranians is not wrong in principle, but it depends on which Iranians are the actual or potential partners. The president can address the Iranian people directly if he chooses, from the podium of the United Nations (as I urged Bush to do). He can tell them that just as the United States can and will help them to build civilian nuclear reactors, so it will not stand still and watch all Iran’s agreements with international bodies be flagrantly broken. He can tell them that the mullahs’ sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas is a reason for Iran’s continued isolation. He can add—as I’ve suggested before—that in its zeal for armaments, the theocracy has been culpably negligent in preparing Iran and its people for the likelihood of a serious earthquake in the next few years and that the United States stands ready to share its seismological expertise in the here and now.

There are, in other words, several options and stages in between the polar opposites of confrontation with Iran and mute passivity in the face of clerical defiance of international law. But the time in which this “space” can be employed is diminishing, and it ought to be clearly stated and understood that if a confrontation does arise, it will not have been of Obama’s making.