"Any agreement that does not recognize the rights of the Iranian people and does not respect these rights, has no chance," Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week.
The Iranian foreign minister was not talking about freedom of speech, assembly, and religion — among the many human and civil rights his regime has denied the people of Iran for more than 30 years. No, he was talking about a "right" that does not exist: his regime's "right" to enrich uranium.
Derisive laughter would have been an appropriate reaction. Instead, many leading lights of the foreign-policy establishment have been adamant that the Obama administration not do or say anything that might upset Iran's rulers and, what's more, that it provide economic relief as a "confidence-building" measure.
What do these progressive commentators think Iran should offer in return? Not much: not a halt to uranium enrichment or the construction of a plutonium facility at Arak; not dismantling of centrifuges or other infrastructure of nuclear-weapons production; not the handing over of existing uranium stockpiles; not serious additional compliance and verification measures. And they vehemently oppose a new sanctions bill that passed in the House — with strong bipartisan support — and is now stalled in the Senate.
An informed and lively discussion of these issues could be edifying. But those who favor the U.S.'s having more negotiating leverage, not less, are not being debated — they are being denounced. "Warmonger" is just one of the terms being hurled.
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has been gentler. He labels those calling for tradeoffs rather than giveaways "naysayers" with "neither history nor current reality on their side."
There is "not a chance," he asserts, that Tehran will abandon its "right" to enrich uranium. Even if we suppose he's correct, why shouldn't that be a topic of negotiations? Why give it away in advance and for nothing?
For reasons I can't fathom, Gelb also believes the discussions now underway could produce a grand bargain, a "deal that would lead to the Mideast equivalent of ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union." A little history that's not on his side: President Reagan's strategy, memorably summarized as "We win, they lose," was to accelerate the arms race, thereby putting heavy economic pressure on the Russians, and to demand the demolition of the Berlin Wall — which many foreign-policy sophisticates at the time saw "not a chance" of happening.
Gelb adds: "While I don't like the clerical dictators in Tehran one bit, I can understand how they might feel threatened by Israel and the West." Think about that: Iran's rulers call Israel a "cancer" that "should be cut off." Iranian president Hassan Rouhani — incessantly described in the major media as a "moderate" — says, "We need to express 'Death to America' with action." But it is they who feel "understandably" threatened?
An editorial in the New York Times last week struck similar themes. Additional economic pressure, the Times opined, would be "unlikely to force Iran to abandon an enterprise in which it has invested billions of dollars and a great deal of national pride."
Just so we're clear: That enterprise is the development of a nuclear-weapons capability that Iran's rulers intend to use to (1) establish hegemony in the Middle East, (2) protect the terrorists they sponsor abroad, and (3) entrench their despotic rule at home. President Obama has long called that "unacceptable."
It has become common in the West to regard diplomacy and war as alternatives. That perception was implicit in remarks made last week by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. She urged members of the Senate not to pass the new sanctions bill because to do so would be to vote "against diplomacy. . . . I think the consequences of not moving forward with a diplomatic path is potentially aggression, potentially conflict, potentially war."
A little more history: Zhou Enlai, the 20th-century Chinese Communist revolutionary, said, "All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means." A little current reality: Iran's rulers, self-declared 21st-century Islamist revolutionaries, hold the same view.
Pulitzer Prize–winning Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been reassuring his readers that Iran is prepared to accept "curbs on its nuclear program" and to "roll back its nuclear program." To arrive at that conclusion requires ignoring not only what leading nonproliferation experts are saying but also what Iranian officials themselves have been saying. To take just one example: "Negotiations do not require concessions," Iranian parliamentarian Ali Motahari said recently. "Rather, negotiations are a tool for us to receive concessions."
Friedman goes on to impugn the motives of those concerned that Iran is about to defeat America at the negotiating table — just as North Korea has done. "Never have I seen Israel and America's core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel's side against their own president's," he writes. "I'm certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations." Really? He's certain these "many American lawmakers" lack both intelligence and integrity?
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius also believes it has become possible to have "an American rapprochement" with Iran — or at least that it would be if not for Israeli and Saudi efforts to "scuttle" progress. He accuses the French of gumming up the works as well — not because they sincerely believe that the Iranian offer in Geneva earlier this month was a "sucker's deal" but out of greed — to position themselves "as the West's prime weapons supplier to the Saudis."
A modest proposal: Secretary of State John Kerry should use this quarrel to his advantage. He should say to Iran's negotiators: "Look, I'm a reasonable guy. But it's not just up to me or even President Obama. There's also Congress — those guys are cynical. And in the U.S., we have to put up with the warmongers and naysayers. We don't have your . . . freedom of maneuver. So help me help you: Verifiably halt and dismantle your military-nuclear program — the one you insist you don't need, yout don't want, and doesn't exist. Suspend all enrichment and reprocessing — as you are required to do under international law, including multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. Then we'll work with you to revive Iran's ailing economy. And all those warmongers and naysayers — we'll prove them wrong!"