Upon completion of his term in office, President Obama will bequeath to his successor a world indelibly scarred by the current crisis in Iran. For regardless of whether Iran’s nuclear treasures are successfully wrested from the hands of the mullahs, the current presidents of Iran and the U.S. will have left behind – to the great detriment of the West – a plausible roadmap for all aspiring autocrats. This legacy has a simple tenet: Nuclear weaponry is not a necessity in achieving autocratic success. But the credible threat of developing such weapons is an invaluable asset – a purveyor of leverage well worth the risks, sanctions and pain that are entailed.
The efficacy of the new doctrine has already been demonstrated. Without giving an inch and with remarkable alacrity, new Iranian president Hassam Rouhani has successfully positioned himself within reach of a possible handshake with Obama – a handshake that is likely to leave the latter with fewer fingers in the aftermath. Rouhani has proven that the rattling of a nuclear sabre is capable of bringing both advantage and legitimacy to even the vilest regimes and most pre-eminent terror sponsors if negotiated away with temperance.
For those of us unbeguiled by Rouhani’s “charm offensive”, the absence of his predecessor’s malicious diatribes is keenly felt. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wore the trophies of his regime’s vicious exploits with unabashed pride and shared the regime’s genocidal musings without apology. His candor regarding the true intentions and convictions of Iran’s Islamic Republic were essential ingredients in rousing a European diplomatic culture seduced by its own rhetoric and the notion that Iran’s illicit behaviour and nuclear ambitions could be modified through the lure of profits. Iran certainly did profit, pouring billions of those dollars into its nuclear program, while proceeding unhindered in executing tens of thousands of Iranian citizens and incarcerating millions of others.
The charmless Ahmadinejad disrupted this mutually beneficial dynamic with his inability to strike the right balance between genocidal banter and diplomatic pillow talk. His unremitting anti-Semitism – ringing with historical authenticity – laid bare the pathological Jew-hatred of the Khomeinist creed, and amplified the threat of a unilateral Israeli response. The menace posed by Iran’s leadership was suddenly taken seriously, and so were the warnings of the Jewish state. Israel was clear: it would not be preparing wreaths for Jewish victims of an Iranian nuclear genocide, but assembling missiles to neutralize the danger, if other options were to fail. Ahmadinejad’s caustic rhetoric reinvigorated American opposition to the regime and catalyzed the international community to acknowledge grudgingly that concerns regarding Tehran could no longer be swept under a barrel of oil. With little recourse, the world reluctantly began to take steps to rescue Iran from the Islamic Republic, and the region from nuclear threat.
However, Rouhani’s promotion by Obama to moderate-in-chief has spelled a return of the failed policy of reasonable accommodation with one of the world’s most ruthless and mendacious regimes. Consequently, the Islamic Revolution is one step closer to a “win-win” scenario for Iran, regardless of any deal Rouhani may sign, betray or reject.
One possible scenario allows Iran to walk away with the coveted prize of a weaponized nuclear capacity. Extended negotiations, particularly with a good will reduction or even status quo of current sanctions, may enable Iran to hold on long enough to pass the nuclear threshold, estimated by various experts to be realized by June 2014. Once this occurs, the regime has good reason to believe that a self-proclaimed “war-weary” Obama will move to a policy of containment and ultimately to acceptance of a new nuclear reality.
Iran’s second option offers another type of victory. The regime could agree to forfeit its nuclear weapons potential in exchange for a truly priceless commodity: leverage. To wit, Iran has never needed nuclear weaponry to achieve its short- and medium- range goals. What the mullahs require is the leverage to proceed without undue interference from other countries. And an Iranian agreement to forgo nuclear weapons – however elusive in practice – would provide that leverage. Not unlike the present agreement with Syria, such a deal would mitigate future intervention against Iran by Western leaders wary of destabilizing a newly brokered agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. For all intents and purposes, this would impose a Western no-fly-zone over Iran’s many theatres of atrocity, giving the regime a wide berth and increased cash flow to pursue its openly proclaimed agenda of “exporting our revolution to the whole world” in order “to establish an Islamic state worldwide.”
It is hard to imagine a better bargaining position. Indeed, other regimes in the region are paying attention, with a Saudi analyst recently noting, “We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.” Obama’s recent decision to cut aid to Egypt will only reinforce their conclusions: countries like Egypt that have no genocidal inclinations and pose no threat to the U.S. will not curry favour in Western eyes simply because they are fighting al-Qaeda and other groups hostile to the West. In contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which seeks nuclear muscle and the destruction of the West, is a candidate for embrace despite its status as the world’s most prolific sponsor of terrorism.
The Obama-Rouhani formula, then, for aspiring tyrannies can be summed up with the words of Charles Krauthammer: “spin the centrifuges while spinning the West.” Create leverage through nuclear endeavor, feign interest in negotiation, moderate the genocidal innuendo, and patiently wait for the handshake and offer that no tyrant will want to refuse.
Danny Eisen is co-founder of the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT), and Sheryl Saperia is the Director of Policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
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