What if the increasing hostility between Iran and the West is just a giant misunderstanding? What if, far from being the result of deep ideological disputes and inherently incompatible worldviews, the rift between Tehran and Washington is reconcilable?
As an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities appears increasingly likely, we are once again hearing about the possibility of a full and unconditional rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Not merely a toning down of rhetoric and assurances against the use of force, but a full-scale diplomatic realignment the likes of which haven't been seen since Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China.
The latest iteration of this argument appeared last week in a New York Times op-ed by William Luers, a career American diplomat, and Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and ambassador to Israel. In exchange for "full recognition and respect for the Islamic Republic," they argue, "Iran would agree to regional cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq," allow wide open international inspections to ensure the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, and cease support for terrorism. Their proposal is essentially a reiteration of the terms offered in a 2003 fax sent by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to Washington offering what came to be known as a "grand bargain." As far as Israel is concerned, Iran would end its support of Hamas and Hezbollah and back a two-state solution provided that both Washington and Jerusalem acknowledge its legitimacy.
Like many things that appear too good to be true, the "grand bargain" was more the work of a free-lancing Swiss diplomat than a genuine offer from Iran's leadership. This was obvious from the start: Confrontation is intrinsic to the Iranian regime, which came to power on the heels of an Islamic revolution and is implacably opposed to the United States. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to America as "Satan incarnate" and "the enemy of Islam and all Islamic peoples." The virulence of this rhetoric did not cease upon the election of Barack Obama, who naively believed that sending pleasant missives to Tehran offering "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" would fundamentally alter relations.
Iran's desire for a nuclear weapon is understandable, "grand bargain" backers argue, given that Washington, egged on by Jerusalem, has long sought to isolate it. The elusive reconciliation will inevitably blossom if only Israeli "hawks" and American "neocons" would get out of the way. Israeli fear of Iran is misplaced, Luers and Pickering say. In exchange for granting international inspectors "full access" to its nuclear program, Iran "would agree to cease making threats against Israel" - as if the genocidal rhetoric emanating out of Tehran over the past three decades were just a rhetorical pose and not the reflection of a deeply felt, ideological commitment. Presumably the regime's Holocaust denial, ugly as it may initially seem, actually emanates from entirely benign motives: Tehran is just impatient with the failure to create a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.
Luers and Pickering claim that "the end of terrorism from Al-Qaida and the Taliban" is a mutual goal of the United States and Iran. How, then, do they explain the frequent cooperation between Iran and Al-Qaida, as revealed in the 9/11 Commission Report? In the years since the terrorist attacks, that collaboration has continued apace. In 2009, for instance, the U.S. Treasury Department identified four senior members of Al-Qaida who were "managing the terrorist organization from Iran."
Let's accept, though, for the sake of argument and in contradiction to all available evidence, that a "grand bargain" with Iran is feasible. Would it be desirable? Ensuring an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program and support for international terrorism would certainly be a positive development, but it would come at the cost of conceding the regime's right to oppress its people. Pursuing such a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, therefore, would be deeply immoral, and a betrayal of American values.
Proponents of this detente cite prior American "meddling" as reason enough to stay out of Iran's internal affairs. They point to Washington's support for the 1953 coup that installed the shah, and the repression he inflicted over the course of 25 years, as the fount of Iranian hostility to America; it is the "malign influence of this legacy," Luers and Pickering argue, that must be overcome. But what is the "grand bargain" other than support for continued despotism over the Iranian people? It is perverse to argue that, to atone for its backing a coup six decades ago, Washington must now concede the legitimacy of religious fascists.
There are echoes of the Cold War in today's debate about how to deal with Iran. "My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic," Ronald Reagan told his future national security advisor Richard Allen in 1977. "It is this: We win and they lose." Reagan's notion of victory in the Cold War was widely derided as bellicose and insane; few people believed that the Soviet Union would ever collapse. Regardless of how much credit one accords Reagan in achieving this outcome, the fact is that he was right.
Likewise, the long-term goal of the United States and the entire free world should be the downfall of the mullahs. Washington ought to pursue nonviolent ways of preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, and work to limit its destabilizing behavior. But it must never adopt a policy that would consign the Iranian people to indefinite tyranny.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.