The Iran Mystery Case

Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran's Most Powerful Leader

by Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 35 pp., available at
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; drawing by John Springs

The governance of religion and morals and resurgence of Islamic values is that heightened peak to which the defiled hands of those given to debauchery and whims does not reach, and which the diplomacy of gold and might fails to entrap.

—Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, from a speech quoted in his Web site biography at

Throughout the Bush years in Washington, the issue of what to do about Iran was often reduced to a question of whether or not to talk to the Iranian regime. Those who insisted on silence saw Iran starkly as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” controlled by fanatics grimly bent on making atom bombs. Only the threat of force, they claimed, could persuade Iran to change its ways or, better yet, to change its nature as an Islamic republic. An opposing camp declared that America would be wiser to accept Iran as a regional power and to encourage pragmatic elements within its leadership. Their hope was to build trust through diplomacy so that Iran would not feel the need for a nuclear deterrent. The ideal outcome would be a Grand Bargain based on the common interest of forging a more secure Middle East.

By last spring, the argument between these camps had escalated to the point where some conservatives, including President Bush and the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, insinuated that Barack Obama’s declared willingness to talk to Iran amounted to “appeasement,” a term loaded with the shame of Britain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich. Although the US Treasury has recently tightened economic sanctions on Iran, such shrillness has now subsided. In its waning months the Bush administration has broken with its previous policy by sending William Burns, a senior State Department official, to multiparty talks on the Iranian nuclear issue. It has even made preliminary plans to open a “US interests section,” or low-level diplomatic office, within the Swiss embassy in the Iranian capital, Tehran—an initiative that is typically a first step toward restoring normal relations. US officials are also understood to have counseled Israel, the country that feels most threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, to refrain from preemptive action.

These moves have come partly in response to expert advice, much of which warns that the military option is too risky: air strikes cannot guarantee to stop Iran from getting the bomb, yet would likely ignite a cataclysmic regional backlash, particularly in Iraq. The fragility of the global economy has cooled tempers, too, since any threat to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf could destroy chances of a recovery. Bitter experience has also shown that shunning Iran, and brandishing sticks without accommodating legitimate Iranian concerns, have merely served to entrench Tehran’s own hard-liners. Not only has Iran defiantly accelerated its nuclear program, it has also made embarrassing strategic inroads, via such ideological allies as Hezbollah and…

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