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Detente or Appeasement?e

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Message Jubin Afshar

Among the most curious aspects of the debate over how to handle the rogue Iranian regime is perhaps the strew of Iran pundits who consistently argue in favor of accepting the current status quo in Iran, recognizing the Iranian regime as a major regional power, and providing security guarantees for its political survival, and recognizing it on par with a regional superpower to be reckoned with.

Such Iran experts argue that the Iranian regime enjoys widespread domestic support, wields a hefty military punch, and is a formidable enemy if the US or the West were to ever think of confronting it in its pursuit of suspected nuclear weapons or support of terrorism.

Most notable among such experts are Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Vali Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Gary Sick of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University.

In his latest article in Foreign Affairs, Tekeyh calls for bolstering the standing of “pragmatists” in Iran’s elite who supposedly want to move the country away from confrontation with the United States.

In his article, “Time for Détente With Iran,” Takeyh writes, “If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away anytime soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente. In particular, it should offer pragmatists in Tehran a chance to resume diplomatic and economic relations. Thus armed with the prospect of a new relationship with the United States, the pragmatists would be in a position to sideline the radicals in Tehran and try to tip the balance of power in their own favor. The sooner Washington recognizes these truths and finally normalizes relations with its most enduring Middle Eastern foe, the better.”

Indeed, the sooner Washington succumbs to these fantasies the sooner the Iranian regime’s grand plan for regional hegemony and consolidation of its brutal religious rule over a restive Iranian populace will be realized and the US will yet again gain notoriety among Iranians as siding with their oppressors. This of course is something that the Bush Administration has ruled out.

Takeyh and the Council on Foreign Relations like to think of the above policy formulation as paradigm shift in U.S. diplomacy. However, what is clear is that the above has been the US and European foreign policy modus operandi for the past decade and a half in their dealings with Tehran.

For two decades now, the Europeans and the Clinton Administration in the 90’s have futilely sought negotiating partners in Tehran in a vain effort to woo the regressive religious regime back to modern times. Indeed, it was in the early 90’s that it was first argued that “moderates” such as then Iranian president Rafsanjani are closet reformers biding their time to bring Iran back to the fold. It turned out that Rafsanjani was more interested in using the Western fascination with his connivance to launch a series of bloody assassinations in Western Europe and line his pockets with Iranian oil money.

The would-be Iran pundits did not lose heart however and persevered until Khatami arrived on a white horse to rescue the pipe dream of moderates within the Iranian religious theocracy. Khatami seduced his Western audience with skill and squeezed as much juice out of Western appeasers as he could. After all he was the Minister of Propaganda (ie: Information Minister) in the war years and a mullah with fairly good oratory skills but little substance. In the meantime, the regime rushed full speed to clandestinely develop the deadly tools to realize its designs for regional hegemony, i.e. nuclear weapons capability and the delivery means that could threaten Israel, Europe and eventually the United States.

Khamenei, the regime’s supreme leader and unelected despot, finally pulled the rug from under the appeasement camp’s feet in the summer of 2005 by robbing them of their would-be champion, and maneuvered Ahmadinejad to power. With the firebrand president spewing hatred and bigotry, our Iran pundits must have felt like chumps who had their pockets picked in the middle of the dance floor.

Reeling from the loss of Khatami and the drubbing of Rafasanjani in sham elections in Iran, they began to fantasize about differences between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad himself. What a sad case of delusion. Imagine having to acquiesce to Khamenei as the champion of moderation in Iran. But this was precisely what we were hearing from Takeyh and his colleagues not so long ago as last summer.

Gary Sick said in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the CFR websiteas recently as January 23, “There is very serious opposition building up to Mr. Ahmadinejad in Iran. Basically the entire political elite are coming together in opposition to him.” Sick concluded that he believes “Iran would probably be in a situation where it could possibly make concessions” on its uranium enrichment drive and expressed hope that the EU and US don’t lose the opportunity “because I do believe that if a reasonable offer is put on the table and raised with Iran under those circumstances, there’s a very real chance that the political elite in Iran will in fact use that as a rallying point and try to outflank Mr. Ahmadinejad.”

Of course, this is not the first time that Sick has argued for engagement, dialogue, concessions and incentives for Iran, in a policy that can best be characterized as a de facto recognition of the current Iranian regime and normalization of relations with the leading state-sponsor of terrorism abroad and human rights violations at home. Sick’s reading of the internal Iranian scene is however as muddled as ever since his last exaggerated appraisal of Rafsanjani and Khatami’s “moderation” efforts.

So what gives? Will the true moderates in the Iranian regime please stand up?

Alas, silence. Takeyh, Sick and the like are sounding more and more like doctors peddling snake oil in lieu of true medicine.

Perhaps the desire to truly see “moderates” in Tehran and to marginalize the “radicals” is a noble one. But noble desires fade in the face of the true nature of a regressive religious dictatorship that is hell-bent on maintaining itself in power in the face of modernity, domestic social, economic and political pressures, and a US Administration that has finally sets its sight on the main source of instability in the region.

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Jubin Afshar, is Director of the Near East Project at Near East Policy Research in Washington, D.C. http://www.neareastpolicy.com/
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