Attempts to engage with the mullahs who run the Islamic Republic will never succeed.
In an interview with NPR Radio to mark the end of 2014, Obama said he did not rule out reopening the US Embassy in Tehran – should Iran choose to permanently end efforts to develop atomic bombs.
“I never say never, but I think these things have to go in steps,” the US president said of the possibility.
Obama said the Iranians should take advantage of the opportunity to lift international sanctions, “because if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules – and that would be good for everybody.”
For those of us with the mindset of a liberal democrat, Obama’s argument makes perfect sense. But totalitarian regimes work according to different rules. While leaders of liberal democracies use their charisma and the power of their arguments to garner support and build consensus, the dictator’s skills are different. Ruthlessness and a willingness to sacrifice any person, value or cause for the sake of maintaining control characterize the autocrat. Identifying and exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses are essential for survival.
Heads of state hailing from liberal democracies tend to project their own values onto dictators, convinced that, like themselves, dictators are ultimately governed by basic moral principles and can be reasoned with.
In contrast, totalitarian regimes see an attempt to compromise, to find a middle ground, as weakness that they are quick to exploit. Dictators must be stopped by force, history has shown.
In the late 1930s, Adolf Hitler interpreted Neville Chamberlain’s desperate attempts at appeasement as a sign that Britain was war-weary. Nazi Germany had to be categorically and unequivocally defeated.
In 1982, it was not appeasement that brought down the murderous regime in Argentina. It was Margaret Thatcher’s decision to go to war – and humiliatingly rout the junta’s forces – to reclaim Britain’s control over the Falkland Islands.
In the late 1990s, it was not “engagement” but NATO bomb strikes and military intervention that precipitated the fall of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
In 2005, Hamas did not see Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip as an opportunity to end its aggression against the Jewish state and begin the fruitful task of building an independent Palestinian state. It saw it as a sign that Israelis were caving in to terrorism.
Similarly, attempts to engage with the mullahs who run the Islamic Republic will never succeed.
However, a military attack might not be the only way to stop its march toward atomic bombs. Iran’s population is educated, sophisticated, surprisingly pro-Western and, given the right conditions, might eventually shake off its violent, reactionary Islamic leadership.
While many factors contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, intense international pressure, particularly the activism of US Jewry for the release of refusniks and dissidents, helped. Many of the people persecuted under the Soviet regime became household names in the West – Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky Edward Kuznetsov and Yosef Mendelevitch, for example.
But how many of us can name even one Iranian dissident? Human rights activists presently languishing in Iranian prisons must become known to the world.
Women’s rights activists such as Shiva Nazar Ahari and Laleh Hassenpour, bloggers such Siamak Mehr and Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki, and student activists such as Zia Nabavi and Navid Khanjani must become household names.
Raising world awareness about those the Islamic Republic is persecuting and making these people’s names and faces known, coupled with economic sanctions, might set in motion internal political processes that could lead to regime change. It definitely has a better chance of working than “engagement.”