Book Review: Dancing with the Iranian devil

Since 1984, when Germany’s foreign minister engaged Iran in ‘critical dialogue,’ the policy of ‘change through trade’ has informed Europe’s interactions with the Middle Eastern country.

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the UN General Assembly in New York in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the UN General Assembly in New York in 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
To understand the foreign policy goals of European engagement with Iran during its nascent phase, it is worth recalling a joke of the time.
In 1984, Germany’s then-foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher pursued the concept of “critical dialogue” to revive diplomacy with Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. This was supposed to be a kind of carrot-and-stick policy to improve the Islamic Republic’s incorrigibly reactionary human rights record with tough-love criticism; the incentive part of German engagement meant economic and diplomatic benefits to the mullah regime.
The joke turned out to be that critical dialogue centered on US behavior toward Iran – with the US as whipping boy for the Germany-Iran meetings.
Whatever Genscher’s real aim behind critical dialogue, his efforts advanced Germany’s economy, with a multibillion- dollar bilateral Berlin-Tehran trade relationship. Yet there was no reciprocity from Iran with respect to relaxing its totalitarian grip on its population.
With his timely new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, Dr. Michael Rubin deconstructs over three decades of largely misguided diplomacy with Iran – the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
His brilliant study of engagement with bad actors is not limited to the Islamic Republic; Rubin crisscrosses the North Korean “Hermit Kingdom,” Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban movement, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Pakistan and a motley crew of assorted terrorist entities such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
With a November 24 deadline approaching to reach an agreement with Iran to end its illicit nuclear program, the P5+1 (Russia, France, China, the US and UK, and Germany) negotiators with President Hassan Rouhani’s regime would benefit from digesting Rubin’s chapter “Great Satan vs. Mad Mullahs” for guidance.
The absence of economic sanctions on Iran’s battered financial system is the main component for a comprehensive agreement with Tehran. However, the German idea of “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel) has animated Europe’s interactions with Iran over the decades.
“The idea of flipping rogues with trade may sound good in theory, but there is very little precedent to suggest that it has a basis in reality,” writes Rubin.
In short, the world powers believe that tempting economic benefits – normalized trade relations – will ensure that Iran stops its work on a nuclear weapon, and dismantles its nuclear infrastructure.
Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, weaves in key lessons in which Iran’s regime faced an existential crisis, prompting the mullahs to abandon their nefarious activity, and where Iran sought to insulate itself to build a nuclear weapons device.
There is a lot of wisdom in his case studies.
Rubin argues that the “price of desperation diplomacy” with Iran continues to embolden its theocratic regime to seek more concessions from the West. Take his example of US president Jimmy Carter: His failure to invoke a pressure point campaign to free American hostages contributed to their 444 days of captivity.
Carter was wedded to diplomacy at the expense of relegating leverage to an inferior status.
Rubin writes, “Carter need not have invaded Iran but had he quietly sent troops and battle groups to the Persian Gulf, Khomeini would have noticed. At the very least, Carter might then have negotiated from a position of strength.”
As Rubin notes, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” Nonetheless, he marshals compelling empirical evidence to show that enormous economic and military pressure can influence a dramatic change in Iran’s behavior.
While Carter appealed in a letter to revolutionary leader Khomeini to release the hostages as a fellow religious man, the election of Ronald Reagan, from the vantage point of Tehran, spelled opposition to docile diplomacy – and Iran released the American hostages minutes after Reagan assumed office in 1981. Put simply, the election of Reagan, a champion of robust national security, coupled with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, forced Khomeini to reach his breaking point.
Iranian recalcitrance would again rapidly melt away in the face of the US defeat of Hussein during the first Gulf War in 1990.
The release of American hostages held by Iranian proxies was prompted by “the fact that the US, by defeating Saddam Hussein’s army, had achieved in 100 hours what Iran could not do in eight years,” writes Rubin.
The election of so-called reform- minded president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 promised new openings for diplomacy.
The Clinton administration overtures to Iran were, following the pattern of previous Iranian regimes, ignored. To president Bill Clinton’s credit, he did not relax tough economic sanctions targeting Iran’s economy, including the ban of dual-use goods which can be applied for military and civilian purposes.
Khatami was a kind of Act I for Rouhani. Rubin quotes Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami’s spokesman, as saying, “We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence-building… and a covert policy, which was a continuation of activities.” These activities turned out to be “advanced weapons.”
The same charge of duplicity has been leveled against Rouhani’s regime.
Fast-forward to the “extended hand” of Barack Obama’s presidency to Iran’s clerical rulers. The formative stages of Obama’s Iran engagement policy were marked by an obsessive devotion to rhetoric with Iran’s rulers, at the expense of democracy promotion.
Indeed, Obama infamously ignored mass democracy protests in 2009 against president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent election victory.
Rubin neatly captures, it can be argued, the foreign policy low point of Obama’s first term: “Obama likewise lost perspective, effectively favoring preservation of the Islamic Republic out of a desire to engage the regime. Protesters’ chants of ‘Obama, ya una ya ba ma’ (Obama, you’re either with us or against us) underscored the point.”
Congressional pressure imposed on Obama helped crystallize a tough architecture of economic sanctions targeting Iran’s international banking system and its oil and gas economy. With a view toward reaching an agreement with Rouhani, Obama eliminated some sanctions. The relief provided Iran with a massive economic shot in the arm.
Rubin’s warning about the trap of “desperation diplomacy” has entered the current round of talks. The P5+1 gutted six rounds of UN Security Council resolutions barring Iran from enriching uranium. Concessionary bargaining is now official US policy. Ali Younesi, Rouhani’s senior adviser and former spy chief of Iran, said in early October that Obama is the weakest US president and he needs the deal with Iran. There are echoes of Carter’s style in his statement.
Ramped-up credible military threats, on the other hand, could very well secure a good nuclear deal with Iran. While Tehran is viewed as a formidable military power in the Middle East, Rubin zeroes in on an overlooked example of Iranian surrender: Iran declared it would send a ship to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with supplies in 2010. Israel explicitly stated that its navy would intercept the vessel. The ship never departed for Gaza.
All of this helps explain why Rubin’s policy prescriptions and insights into Iran’s behavior warrant intense examination. It is not too late for his analysis to inform the government officials and policy involved in the Iran talks.
Otherwise, the talks may just turn out to be a new running joke. 
The writer reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post, and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Twitter: @BenWeinthal