Imagine you’re Iranian President Hassan Rouhani or his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, or Major General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which, according to the U.S. Defense Department, is charged with “extraterritorial operations,” including assassinations, insurgency, and terrorist attacks. No doubt you’d feel mightily assured.
The American president openly admits that he and his nation are tired of fighting. You, on the other hand, are not — despite crippling sanctions, a war with Iraq that cost a million casualties between 1980 and 1988, and the strain of continuing to support the embattled dictatorship in Syria. You wake up each morning eager to wage jihad against “the Great Satan” and his allies.
Deceiving your enemy has never been difficult, but these days, it seems, Americans are eager to deceive themselves. For example, on Friday Politico ran the headline: “For Obama, finally, a foreign policy win.”
Specifically: “Obama became the first American president in 34 years to speak directly with his Iranian counterpart. Obama touted ... the opening of talks with Iran, the nation’s nemesis for two generations.”
Iran’s rulers, according to the U.S. State Department, have long been the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism. They are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They plotted to blow up a restaurant just a few miles from the White House. In 1983, they ordered the slaughter of hundreds of U.S. Marines in Beirut. In 1979, they took American diplomats hostage. Yet persuading Rouhani — who actually is not Obama’s “counterpart” but rather the top adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei — to chat on the phone following his refusal to shake Obama’s hand at the U.N. constitutes a foreign policy victory? Really?
Our enemies seem to understand us so much better than we understand them. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos last weekend, Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, spoke in fluent English of “mutual distrust” and “mutual steps each side needs to take in order to convince the other side that its intentions are positive and for a better future for all of us.”
Zarif, it is fair to speculate, perceives how fervidly Americans want to be convinced that the conflict that began when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni led the Iranian Revolution in 1979 has been mostly a misunderstanding. Zarif told Stephanopoulos that when his government inscribes “Death to America!” on missiles, they intend no threat or offense, “they’re talking about the policy.” Really?
Last week, Obama told the U.N. that Iran’s “supreme leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons.” And to Stephanopoulos, Zarif said, “Our leader has a religious verdict that the use of nuclear weapons, even possession of nuclear weapons, is contrary to religious doctrine.”
Obama and Stephanopoulos might have asked to see a copy because, as the Middle East Media Research Institute has pointed out, there is no evidence that such a fatwa was ever issued. Certainly, a text has never been made public. The scholar Amir Taheri has noted that even if such a fatwa does exist, it would be only “an opinion,” not binding on “Iran as a nation-state.”
Iran’s rulers are in violation of five unanimous Security Council resolutions mandating that Iran cease all uranium-enrichment activities, as well as their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The “right” to uranium enrichment that they say is “non-negotiable” is to be found nowhere in international law. They are simply demanding and asserting it.
Is there any chance that Rouhani and Zarif have been empowered by Khamenei to change course? “Our damaging sanctions have gotten Rouhani on the phone,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce Royce said last week. “We must increase the economic pressure until Iran stops its nuclear drive.”
His Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, strongly agrees. A credible threat of military force also might weigh on the minds of Iranian rulers — though it’s possible they’ve concluded that Americans are too war-weary to actually use that stick.
So American negotiators have their work cut out for them. They may be tempted to make a deal that can be spun as a victory — even if it’s really a defeat. Imagine you’re Rouhani, Khamenei or Suleimani: What would you think then? More to the point, what would you do then?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.