Defiant Iran

At the beginning of 2002, President George W. Bush tried to punish Iran for supporting anti-Israel militants, for refusing to adopt a Western-style democracy, and for allegedly trying to produce weapons of mass destruction. He included Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in the “axis of evil.” Among foreign diplomats and journalists in Tehran, it became fashionable to speak of the coming “implosion” of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s revolutionary state. Weakened by a power struggle between reformists and conservative hard-liners, Iran was now, or so it was said, acutely vulnerable to the sort of threat that the United States, whose forces had easily toppled the Taliban and scattered al-Qaeda, seemed to represent.

The fear of intervention by the US in Iran became more urgent among Iran’s leaders when America invaded Iraq the following year. Indeed, it later became known that, in early 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry quietly sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations, in which the Iranian government said it was prepared to make concessions about its nuclear program and to address concerns about its ties to groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, in return for an agreement from the White House to refrain from destabilizing the Islamic Republic and start lifting long-in-effect sanctions. The US rejected this overture out of hand. It seemed that Bush didn’t want to offer guarantees to a regime that he intended, at a later date, to try to destroy.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine the Iranian government repeating this sort of offer. Such is their apparent strength and good fortune that they take a provocatively long time to respond to diplomatic overtures, such as the proposal that the US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia offered them in June, and which they rejected. The six powers had offered a series of incentives—including nuclear technology whose peaceful application can be verified, a very modest relaxation of US sanctions, and diplomatic support for Iran’s bid to join the World Trade Organization—as an inducement to Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. If you ask an Iranian conservative what during the past four years has caused the upturn in Iranian confidence, he or she will probably dwell on the eclipse of the reform movement of the former president, Mohammad Khatami, and his replacement in last year’s election by a hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has promised to return Iran to the state of unsullied revolutionary purity that he imagines existed during the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ahmadinejad’s populism finds expression in dirigiste economics and nationalist rhetoric about Iran’s right to nuclear power. Last year, in a private meeting that was filmed and made public, apparently against his wishes, he intimated that he enjoys the favor of Mahdi, the twelfth Shia imam, who disappeared in the eighth century. Most Shias believe that Mahdi will return after the world has been plunged into chaos, heralding a period of divine rule followed by the end …

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