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From Great Satan to Global Arrogance

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After a week of the Bush administration declaring diplomacy as still the governing principle behind U.S. policy towards Iran (notwithstanding the fact that "all options", presumably including the ones outlined by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker are still on the table), I suppose some Americans (and a few in Congress) might be breathing a little sigh of relief. The question to ask now then, is what exactly does diplomacy mean, and how will it be judged to be successful?

The U.S. is actually not engaged in any form of diplomacy with Iran: that has been outsourced to the Europeans and the Russians, with an occasional job for the Chinese. What the U.S. is engaged in is making public demands of Iran that the outsourced countries have to deliver in private, which in essence means no diplomacy at all. The key U.S. demand is that Iran must enter into an agreement with the rest of the world whereby it forswears any kind of nuclear research or nuclear fuel production in perpetuity, despite the fact that as a signatory to the NPT it has those explicit rights. The reason given for such an extraordinary demand is that the regime of the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted with nuclear technology, mainly because it hid elements of its nuclear program from the IAEA (or even lied) for some eighteen years (although it has been cooperating for over two years now and is technically not in violation of any NPT accords); but also because the president of Iran made a statement last year calling for the elimination of Israel. (That particular statement is often presented as evidence that should Iran ever have nuclear weapons, it will deploy them against Israel in an unprovoked attack, or just hand some over to terrorists to use at their own will and discretion. It is curious that the Bush administration, which dismissed Ahmadinejad's predecessor Mohammad Khatami as someone without any true power in Iran, has bestowed dictatorial powers on Mr. Ahmadinejad whose office of the presidency has in fact been stripped of more of its authority by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei than ever before. But regardless of whether Ahmadinejad is a wannabe Hitler or simply a bumbling nincompoop, he simply lacks the authority, either religious (he is not a cleric in a country ruled by Shia Islam) or political to have any control over whether Iran gets a nuclear weapons, let alone use them.)

The U.S. demand that Iran give up nuclear research and enrichment despite its clear rights under the NPT simply because having lied before, it cannot be trusted again is akin to the world demanding that President Bush give up his role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces because having lied once before going to war, he cannot be trusted with that kind of power and authority again. (Wait, on second thoughts....) But more important, what most analysts in the media seem to overlook is that if Iran were to give up those rights, something asked of no other signatory to the NPT, then the Iranian regime would be admitting to its own people, let alone the rest of the world, that it cannot be trusted. Essentially, the U.S. is asking the Iranian government to de-legitimize itself, something no government, even a fully democratic one, can ever do. In Iran, where the media has closely followed every twist and turn in the nuclear crisis (and despite what we think in the West, there are many in the media who quite openly question Iran's tactics, if not its position), virtually every Iranian knows what is being demanded of their country and why. As such, it is abundantly clear that the Iranian regime simply cannot ever accept the U.S. position; namely, declare to its people that it is an untrustworthy regime. (The next step for an self-admitted untrustworthy regime would be to step down or be forced to step down by its own people, something the U.S. may desire, but is unrealistic if not pure fantasy in the case of Iran.)

Some experts and analysts, and even some in Congress from both parties, are now calling for the U.S. to engage in direct talks with Iran to negotiate a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis. The Bush administration has consistently ruled out such direct talks, as if talking would legitimize a regime that it doesn't recognize. Certainly a big question is even if the U.S. wanted talks, would Iran agree? All indications are that it would. Former President Rafsanjani, arguably more powerful than Ahmadinejad (in his position as head of the Expediency Council which has oversight of the presidency) has said as much in interviews. Iran craves the respect of the world, and it craves U.S. respect even more, for the Iranians know that the U.S., as the only true superpower, is ultimately what counts in global politics. While the Iranian government is proud of its accomplishments over the past twenty-seven years of Islamic rule; it has become an independent regional power under no other country's patronage, all it wants now is a recognition of that fact (the main reason it has agreed to talk to the U.S. about Iraq is because the U.S. request for talks specifically acknowledges Iran's power and prestige in the region, a fact trumpeted in the Iranian media).

But perhaps the most important sign of Iran's long-term view towards the United States is the name now officially used by Iranian officials for the United States: "The Global Arrogance". Quite a step down from the previous official name, "The Great Satan". Few in the media have picked up on the significance of this change, but imagine if President Bush one day decided that henceforth the "Axis of Evil" were to be called the "Axis of Impetuousness." It would be hard to argue for war against such an axis, just as it is now harder for Iranians to imagine the U.S. as quite as deserving of destruction as when it was, well, satanic. It may still seem an insignificant little point to most Americans who remember the hostage crisis and the "Death to America" chants (which have also been mostly, but not always, downgraded to the far less threatening "Down with the U.S.A."), but I never thought I'd see the day that U.S. rhetoric towards Iran ("evil") would be more incendiary than Iranian rhetoric towards America ("arrogant").

There is no question that the only peaceful way to defuse the Iranian crisis is for the U.S. to engage in direct diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Of course the U.S., regardless of its opening position, will have to recognize that it will ultimately have to accept some form of nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil, otherwise, as I've mentioned before, it will be asking the Iranian regime to de-legitimize itself in the eyes of its people. But the enrichment and research could be limited to a certain number of centrifuges, say 3000, which is big enough to appear significant to the Iranian people but well below what would be required for weapons program. In exchange for allowing enrichment, the U.S. could demand that the Iranians sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT (which allows snap and much more intrusive inspections) and also demand an Iranian pledge not to withdraw from any international treaty, including the NPT. President Ahmadinejad's earlier proposal that an international consortium, including American firms, participate in Iran's nuclear enrichment program could be accepted by the U.S., and an American company, presumably with a handful of CIA agents as employees, would be on the ground in Isfahan and Natanz and could give advance warning of any diversion of enriched uranium to a weapons program. (Of course the Iranians would know that any Americans in Iran might be CIA, just as they know that any American IAEA inspectors could also be CIA, as they were in the case of Iraq. So they would be watched carefully, but surely some intelligence is better than none?) Other details such as an American security guarantee and Iran's support for certain Palestinian terror groups could ultimately become part of the negotiations and the final solution to the crisis (as could Iranian assistance in Iraq), but for any of this to become a reality, even the talks, there has to be a presumption that the Bush administration is actually keen on a diplomatic solution and doesn't just want to effect regime-change in Iran.

For twenty-six years now the Islamic Republic and the U.S. have not only not had diplomatic relations, but have essentially been enemies. But after the hostage crisis was peacefully resolved, it was easier for the U.S. to ignore Iran than to engage it or even to consider it important enough for regime-change: quite an insult to the fiercely proud Iranians. Part of the reason the Iranians are enjoying this moment in the spotlight so much, and believe me they're enjoying it, is that the world, and particularly the U.S., have come to the realization that Iran is no longer a tin-pot Third World country of little significance beyond its oil reserves and its geographically strategic location. If pursuing a nuclear program was the way to get where they are in terms of power and influence, the Iranians have already accomplished their goal (the Iraq mess was simply an unexpected additional gift). The Bush administration (or for that matter any American government) now really only has two choices: deal with Iran and therefore accept that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate regime, or overthrow that regime. (Short of regime-change, the only other choice might be to so weaken the regime (by destroying not only its nuclear facilities but also most of its armed forces and military equipment) that Iran can once again be ignored for the foreseeable future, but there simply are no other choices for the U.S.) The U.S. cannot ignore Iran as it has in the past given Iran's growing power and influence, particularly while our own power and influence is diminished by the adventure in Iraq, and it cannot outsource communication with Iran to other countries. And since Iran will not give up its enrichment program (at least not in perpetuity; there's always a chance they might suspend enrichment for a further period of negotiations with the Europeans and Russians), then President Bush has to decide whether he wants to be known as the American president who rid the world of the Ayatollahs, or whether he wants to be known as the American president who made peace with them. In neither case would it be clear that Iran will never have nuclear weapons, but given the choice and all the possible consequences, some horrific, how can one argue for former?