IRAN: TABLE TALK
By Dr. Michael Rubin & Danielle Pletka
How will the West respond? Earlier this month, Sir Richard Dalton, until recently Britain's Ambassador in Tehran, called for direct talks between U.S. and Iranian officials and suggested the West modify demands that the Islamic Republic suspend uranium enrichment. Unfortunately, his eagerness for dialogue is being echoed and amplified elsewhere, especially in the wake of the Bush administration's deal to pay North Korea for similar disarmament. Needless to say, former luminaries such as ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ex-President Jimmy Carter think sitting down with the mullahs is a very good idea, UN Security Council resolutions notwithstanding.
Why not talk? The logic of engagement sounds good. But experience shows that engagement means something different in Iran than in the West.
In May, 1992, for example, then German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel launched a "critical dialogue" with Tehran. Berlin sought to use trade and incentives to encourage the Islamic Republic to alter its behavior. And, indeed, it did. But not in the way Mr. Kinkel expected.
On Septermber 17, 1992, Iranian hit men assassinated three Iranian dissidents and their translator in a Berlin restaurant. The subsequent German investigation determined that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Foreign Minister Ali Velayati ordered the murders. What about the dialogue? "We don't give a damn about your ending the critical dialogue," said Supreme Leader Khamenei upon hearing the German court ruling. "We never sought such a dialogue."
Neither Iran's terrorism nor intelligence indications of an accelerating nuclear weapons program dampened European enthusiasm for engagement, however, especially after the election of President Muhammad Khatami and his subsequent call for a "dialogue of civilizations." "There is more to be said for trying to engage and to draw these societies into the international community than to cut them off," EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten explained in February 2002. And engage they did.
Between 2000 and 2005, EU trade with Iran almost tripled. Officials from both sides of the Atlantic fawned on the "reformist" Mr. Khatami. But the rapprochement -- including an embarrassing "apology" for past American sins against Iran from Ms. Albright -- did not stop Mr. Khatami from flying to Moscow in March, 2001, to sign a $7 billion arms and nuclear technology deal. Indeed, under Mr. Khatami, Tehran spent more on arms than it had under Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Iran's exploitation of engagement to advance its agenda is the rule rather than the exception. In December, 2001, in the midst of what many cite as the heyday of Iran-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan, Iranian forces dispatched 50 tons of weaponry to Palestinian militiamen to derail a U.S. and European-brokered ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian forces. On June 8, 2002, three days after a Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bus bomber killed 17 Israelis, the Islamic Republic announced a 70% increase in that group's funding.
Western efforts to game the Iranian system, in short, misunderstand the nature of politics in the Islamic Republic. Politicians rise and fall, but the Supreme Leader's authority remains supreme. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the Iranian President is more figurehead than commander. Factional differences add color to the Iranian scene, and there are nuances in economic and social policies. But politicians do not alter the regime's ideological underpinnings.
Upon his accession to Supreme Leader, analysts labeled Mr. Khamenei a weak compromise candidate. They underestimated him, and all who have attempted to encroach upon his power have found themselves marginalized. Iranians once speculated upon Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi's meteoric rise. A stint in prison ended that.
In 2005, Mr. Khamenei rigged elections to teach frontrunner Mr. Rafsanjani a lesson. The result was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And, as Mr. Ahmadinejad himself has proven obstreperous, Mr. Khamenei has built alternative institutions to undercut him.
Still, the Iranian government is not monolithic, and many academics argue that outreach to more pragmatic factions might encourage them at the hardliners' expense. This is American mirror imaging at its worst: Mr. Ahmadinejad may be a bad guy, but that doesn't make Mr. Rafsanjani a pragmatist or Mr. Khatami a reformer. On key issues relating to nuclear enrichment and terror sponsorship, their differences are rhetorical, not substantive. Thus the "pragmatic" Mr. Rafsanjani, on February 1, 2007, dismissing UN demands to throttle back nuclear enrichment, stated: "We will break the [international] consensus through wisdom and bravery and foil U.S. conspiracies against Iran."
Despite the Iranian government's unified commitment to forge ahead with the nuclear program, some Western observers persist in their belief that the Islamic Republic is searching for a graceful way back from the brink. They point to mounting economic hardship inside Iran and a backlash against President Ahmadinejad's demagoguery. Couldn't engagement empower his critics?
This makes no sense. Dialogue and the attendant relaxation of UN sanctions will strengthen and validate the Ahmadinejad regime.
Far from being susceptible to Western machinations, the Iranians have proven adept at manipulating us. Consider that, since the beginning of the current tensions, the West has retreated from demands that Iran cease conversion of yellowcake to uranium gas and end enrichment entirely to the current demand for nothing more than a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment activities. And all this while Iran funneled weapons to Hezbollah, shipped explosives into Iraq, and defied UN Security Council resolutions.
Proposals for renewed engagement may be well-intentioned, but they are naive and dangerous, and indeed will undercut any possibility of a diplomatic solution. Let's review the current situation.
On September 24, 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency determined that Iran was in violation of its nuclear non-proliferation safeguards agreement. Still, the IAEA deferred referral to the UN Security Council to give diplomacy a chance. After consulting with her European partners, on May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered Tehran two ways forward: Either Iran could defy its international commitments and "incur only great costs," or it could suspend enrichment and enjoy "real benefit and longer-term security." The Iranian regime chose to forego the benefit. On December 23, 2006, the UN Security Council unanimously imposed sanctions.
The 60-day deadline to comply with United Nions demands is up, so what next? Those eager to sit down with Tehran say that dialogue does not mean abandoning sanctions. This is hardly serious. Washington has already offered and delivered inducements to the regime -- a clear path to World Trade Organization accession and spare aircraft parts -- in exchange for behavior modification. In response, Tehran has offered no confidence-building measures. All that remains are direct talks, and even there, Washington has dropped the price from ending Iran's nuclear program to a temporary suspension of enrichment.
The Security Council has spoken. To change course now would signal the impotence of international institutions and multilateral diplomacy. History shows that, when the Supreme Leader believes Western resolve is faltering, Iran will be more defiant and dangerous. Now is not the time to talk. If Washington and Europe truly believe in the primacy of multilateralism and diplomacy, now is the time to ratchet up the pressure.
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
Danielle Pletka is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Ms. Pletka's areas of research and analysis include the Middle East, South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), terrorism, and weapons proliferation. In her capacity as the American Enterprise Institute's expert on Iraq, Pletka has developed a series of conferences on rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, as well as a project designed to promote constitutional democracy in the Arab world. From 1992 to 2002, she was a senior professional staff member for Near East and South Asia with the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where she was Chief Aide to Senator Jesse Helms. Prior to working with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pletka was a staff writer for Insight Magazine (1987-1992) and a editorial assistant with the Los Angeles Time and Reuters, in Jerusalem (1984-1985).
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin and Ms. Pletka was originally published in the Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2007, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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