Stephens: Iran Has Treated The West The Way A Shark Would A Squid


iran-ayatollah-mohammad-taghi-mesbah-ahmadinejadBy Bret Stephens

In May 1981, John Kifner, a reporter for the New York Times who had covered the Iranian hostage crisis from start to finish, wrote a lengthy story seeking to explain how the embassy seizure had come about and why it dragged out for 444 agonizing days. Thirty-one years later, it still makes for timely reading:

“The early attempts at negotiations,” Mr. Kifner wrote, “all sank on the rock of Ayatollah Khomeini’s moral absolutism. ‘This is a war of Islam against blasphemy,’ [Khomeini] said. He dismissed the possibility of armed attack, saying that much of the population was ‘looking forward to martyrdom,’ and he brushed off the threat of economic sanctions: ‘We know how to fast.'”

Give the late ayatollah his due: He had the courage of his convictions-and he had the West’s number. So does his regime. The Islamic Republic has insisted all along that nuclear enrichment is its right. It has consistently responded to threats and sanctions by expanding its nuclear program, bearing the economic sacrifice while forcing the West to bargain for less and less. Yes, the regime is almost certainly lying when it says it has no interest in nuclear weapons. But since when have nations laid bare their secrets or revealed their intentions to the enemy?

Altogether, the regime has treated the West the way a shark would a squid: with the combination of appetite and contempt typically reserved for the congenitally spineless.

And so it was last week, when the U.S. and its partners arrived in Baghdad for another round of talks with Tehran, confident they were at last about to turn the diplomatic corner. The head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency had just announced that he and his Iranian counterpart had all but inked a deal to inspect sites suspected of illicit nuclear work. The looming threat of oil sanctions and the possibility of an Israeli strike were said to be weighing heavily on Iranian minds.

“American negotiators, heading into a crucial round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program . . . are allowing themselves a rare emotion after more than a decade of fruitless haggling with Tehran: hope,” wrote the Times’s Mark Landler on May 19.

“The Iranians are in a position of needing to pursue diplomacy, if anything, even more than they did before,” former diplomat Dennis Ross told Mr. Landler. “It’s not like they have any other good news right now.”

Maybe it will someday occur to the likable Mr. Ross that every time he’s counted on a diplomatic breakthrough-whether with Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Assad or Ali Khamenei-he’s counted wrong. This time, Iran did more than just reject demands to shut down its underground enrichment facility at Fordo and ship its near-bomb-grade uranium abroad. It also announced it would do precisely the opposite: install more centrifuges at Fordo, increase the rate of enrichment, and forbid any U.N. inspections of suspected military sites.

The West’s response? It has agreed to another round of talks next month in Moscow, thereby giving the Iranians the one thing they wanted from the negotiations, which is time.

This isn’t the first time the West has hopped with excitement at the promise of a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran. “Iran experts and regional analysts say . . . that Iran may finally be ready to make a deal.” That was the analysis in the New York Times-in October 2009.

“European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was optimistic Friday about progress in talks to persuade Iran to bring its nuclear program into line with international demands.” That was from an Associated Press story from September 2006.

You can root around Google or Factiva and find similar sequences of headlines from other years: high hopes for a negotiated breakthrough, followed by Iran’s rejection of a deal, followed by the agreement to meet again, followed by-you get the point. How many times can the West allow itself to be fleeced in this bazaar?

Iran’s guess: plenty more. The regime’s tactical gamble is that the Obama administration has its own reasons to drag out the talks at least through November’s election. That’s probably right.

The Iranians may also be gambling that any Israeli strike will prove costly, unpopular and ineffectual, thereby tagging Israel as the aggressor while crippling its deterrent power in the long run. That’s more of a gamble, but from the Iranian perspective it may be one well-worth taking.

The larger question is why the U.S. continues to believe that there’s a grand bargain to be struck with the mullahs, and that it lies just inches out of reach. Western analysts have become experts in explaining why Tehran has rejected every diplomatic overture made to it-bad timing, bad mood music, niggardly terms-without ever alighting on what Mr. Kifner noted in 1981: The mullahs believe they have a cause worth fighting for. They take our concessions as evidence of weakness, and our pragmatism as proof of corruption. They’re not entirely mistaken.

For 33 years, Iran has dealt with us as an enemy. Until we return the favor, we will be fooled again.

{The Wall Street Journal/ Newscenter}


  1. Great title for a story, which just made me have to read it. I have been following the Iran/West imbroglio for many years and enjoy getting as many opinions about the puzzle. You can’t solve a cube unless you look at all the sides after all.

    The optimal and divinely mandated solution is for a reconvened NPT Conference to be held in Jerusalem in 2012. Agenda – Mapping out a thirteen year plan for global nuclear disarmament by 2025.

    P.S. When the Google Team lent their supercomputers to a team of scientists to solve the Rubik’s Cube they found it could be done in 20 moves as long as the correct algorithms were in place. They called the magic equation “G-d’s Algorithm”. The above solution is what everyone should be talking about right now !