The power of an illusion

THINK AGAIN: Obama is the most recent example of a Western leader falling prey to the illusion of Iranian moderation.

Iran's Head of Atomic Energy Organization  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran's Head of Atomic Energy Organization
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Few epigrams are as hackneyed as George Santayana’s “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Yet that warning remains fully apt as one surveys the failures of American and Western policy regarding Iran since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Again and again policymakers who pride themselves on their sophistication and knowledge have professed to detect moderate forces among the ruling mullahs and their chosen representatives, with whom one can do business, as Neville Chamberlain once said of Adolph Hitler.
President Barack Obama’s expressed confidence, during his 15-minute chat last Friday with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in the possibility of working out a “comprehensive solution” to the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program is but the most recent example of a Western leader who believes himself the soul of urbane sophistication falling prey to the illusion of Iranian moderation.
Yet the conviction that Iran can be persuaded to shutter its nuclear weapons development by anything other than a credible and imminent threat of having its nuclear facilities laid waste by US bombers ignores the crucial importance of nuclear weapons in the strategic vision of Iranian leaders from Khomeini to the present.
President Obama, to an even greater degree than his predecessors, is unable to credit Khomeini’s frequently expressed vision for the spread of his particular brand of Shi’ite Islam worldwide even at the cost of the destruction of Iran.
Khomeini, according to long-time US Defense Department analyst Harold Rhode, saw nuclear weapons as a means of reversing the humiliation of Muslim subservience to the West. Possession of nuclear weapons, in Khomeini’s vision, would place Iran at the forefront of the world-wide war to spread Islam of which he constantly spoke. And crucially, those weapons would represent a triumph of Shi’ite Muslims over their Sunni rivals.
For while Sunni leaders have for decades whipped their populations into paroxysms of hatred for the West and Israel, largely to distract from their own failures, they have done nothing to reverse the theological humiliation of Muslim weakness vis-à-vis the West.
Nuclear weapons would allow Iran to provide more effective cover for its terrorist allies, such as Hamas, and exercise control over the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, and thus over the world economy.
Proof of Iran’s steadfast commitment to the development of nuclear weapons does not depend solely on understanding the theological logic of the Islamic Revolution. It is evident on its face. Iran possesses the world’s second or third largest oil and gas reserves – enough to meet its energy needs for 200 years – and has no need of nuclear energy. And even if it did, it would be far cheaper to purchase from Russia all the enriched uranium needed to power civilian reactors rather than build its own vastly more expensive nuclear enrichment program.
That Iran has nevertheless maintained its nuclear program in the face of international isolation and crippling economic sanctions proves two things: Iran’s nuclear program is not about energy and that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has no intention of surrendering that program.
Not least, a November 8, 2011, report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailed Iranian work on nuclear triggers, mathematical modeling of missile trajectories for the deployment of nuclear weapons, and implosion experiments. It confirmed that Iran has sophisticated knowledge of nuclear weapon design and has tested some of the components of a nuclear weapon.
THAT IRANIAN presidents are “moderate” is an ofttold tale, which gets no better by virtue of repetition.
Most importantly, the moderation or lack thereof of the Iranian president is irrelevant to the regime’s decision- making about its nuclear program. Only one person has the power to halt Iran’s development of nuclear power: Supreme Leader Khameini. The new president is no more than the public face that Khameini wears.
That lesson should have been learned over 30 years ago, during the Iran hostage crisis. The United States conducted lengthy negotiations with President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, though the only one with the authority to order the release of the American hostages was Supreme Leader Khomeini. Bani Sadr did, however, manage to extract crucial concessions from the Americans, which were viewed as a humiliation of the US in the honor-obsessed Islamic world and served to increase the prestige of the Islamic Revolution in Muslim eyes.
Moderate, in any event, is a relative term, and one that has proven useless as an analytical tool when applied to successive Iranian presidents. The 1989 election of “moderate” Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani generated much excitement in the West, particularly in Germany, which opened up a new “critical dialogue” in 1992. Two months after the opening of that dialogue, three leaders of the Iranian Democratic Party of Kurdistan were gunned down in a Berlin restaurant. Five years later, a German court implicated Supreme Leader Khameini and president Rafsanjani as among the masterminds of the assassination. As a result every EU member nation withdrew its ambassador from Tehran.
In response, the mullahs had another “moderate” – Mohammed Khatami was elected president in 1997.
He trumpeted a “Dialogue of Civilizations.” Yet in the first two years of his “moderate” rule, a dozen writers and political leaders were murdered, and in 1999, student uprisings were brutally put down. Overseeing the suppression of the student protests, incidentally, was Hassan Rouhani, the latest incarnation of an Iranian “moderate” president.
Nor did the moderation of the “moderates” extend to Israel or abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Rafsanjani referred to Israel as a “one-bomb country” and mused in a public sermon at Tehran University that “one atomic bomb would wipe out Israel.” Khatami spoke of Israel as an “old wound in the body of Islam that cannot be healed.
Under “moderates” and “fanatics” alike, long-range missiles were paraded in Tehran bedecked with banner proclaiming, “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth.”
The idea that Rouhani’s alleged moderation will prove any more relevant is far-fetched. He has been a loyal senior servant of the Islamic Revolution for three decades. And he has openly boasted of the usefulness of a “moderate” façade in fooling the West. In a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council in 2005, he noted cheerily, “While we were talking to the Europeans in Teheran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility in Isfahan.... In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”
A September 3 editorial in the Iranian newspaper Baher, which has close ties to the regime, made clear that the same tactics are being employed today. The editorial criticized Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for adopting an aggressive stance guaranteed to engender Western resistance. The thrust of the editorial, according to Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, was that Iran’s nuclear aspirations are best served not by concessions on the scope of its program but by improving its image as a trustworthy and accountable state. Thus Rouhani’s current charm offensive.
EVEN THE same tired evidence of Iran’s potential flexibility keeps getting recycled. In his speech at the UN last week President Obama, following in the path of former secretary of state Clinton, hopefully cited Supreme Leader Khameini’s mythical fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons. A MEMRI search of the various official websites of Khameini, however, failed to discover any such fatwa. And in response to a question submitted to him as to whether it would not be permissible under Islamic law to use nuclear weapons to deter aggressors against Islam, Khameini pointedly made no reference to any such fatwa.
In addition, The Washington Post’s Jody Warrick revealed the existence of an internal UN document showing that Khameini embraced the concept of an Iranian bomb during a meeting of the country’s top leadership more than two decades ago on the grounds that a nuclear arsenal would “serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.”
Moreover, Ali Reza Forqani, a close ally of the supreme leader, has written of the duty to annihilate Israel and outlined how Iranian missiles could do so in nine minutes.
What next? A citation of the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate – described by John Bolton as a “soft coup” by the US intelligence community against the possibility of military action – which opened with a bombshell announcement of “high confidence” that Iran has suspended work on a nuclear weapons program? A footnote explained that by “weapons program” the NIE only referred to weapon design and “secret” efforts– not to the 3,000 centrifuges then spinning in broad daylight, and even with respect to those the IAEA subsequently found both conclusions to be wrong.
AT ROOT of the never-ending hope for a diplomatic solution is the fallacy that diplomacy is always preferable to military action or the credible threat thereof.
David Wurmser, a former adviser to both vice-president Dick Cheney and chief arms negotiation John Bolton, recalls a conversation with one of his successors in the incoming Obama administration, who outlined an approach to Iran “eerily identical” to the failed policy pursued by president Bush.
Wurmser asked what the backup plan was in the event that diplomacy and sanctions proved ineffective. His opposite number confessed there was none. At some point “pressure must work,” he insisted. That point has still not been reached – and never will be.
Churchill never stopped lamenting how tens of millions of lives could have been spared had England and France shown some backbone at Munich. The German High Command would likely have overthrown Hitler.
The lesson of Munich is that sometimes the application of force in time can spare far greater devastation later.
What was that Santayana said, again?

The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.