During his visit to Washington last week, Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told his American interlocutors that the European Union's initiative on Iran, of which his government is a part, was heading for an impasse. But when asked what the next move should be, all that Straw had to say was: Keep talking until after the Iranian presidential election.
The Europeans said a similar thing last year when talks on Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions had hit another brick-wall. At that time the advice was to keep talking until after the Iranian parliamentary election. Well, that election took place without producing any evolution in the Iranian position except that the Islamic Republic may now be a year closer to the "surge capacity" it needs to become a nuclear power.
The latest round of talks, slated to continue until after the Iranian presidential election, is equally likely to produce no change in Tehran's position. Tehran will continue to use the talks as a diplomatic smokescreen while driving a wedge between Europe and the United States.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to blame Iran for this state of affairs. The leadership in Tehran is acting in accordance with its own agenda that is aimed at securing the technological and industrial base that would enable Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal if and when it so decides. The creation of that "surge capacity" is a key element in the Islamic Defense Doctrine as approved by Khamenehi in the mid-1990s.
The Europeans are victims of their own delusions. Their policy on Iran is based on a logical contradiction and a number of illusions.
The contradiction is this: They assume that Iran has been lying about its nuclear program for two decades, and invite the Iranians to stop lying. But to do that, they would first have to admit that they had been lying. The Europeans are asking Iran to stop doing what Iran insists it is not doing at all. Thus to satisfy the Europeans Iran must first do what it says it is not doing and then stop doing it in a verifiable way. Remember the conundrum about the liar who says that, all his life, he had told nothing but lies?
What about the European illusions?
One such is Straw's belief that the results of the Iranian presidential election will have an impact on Tehran's position. "We have to wait and see who wins," he told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
What Straw ignores is that we already know who the winner is. He is a mid-ranking mulla named Ali Hussein-Khamenehi whose position as "The Supreme Guide" in the system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, gives him unlimited constitutional powers. Whoever wins the Iranian presidency next month will be little more than a member of Khamenehi's vast entourage. Like all his predecessors, the future president will be part of a façade that hides the true decision-making mechanisms of the system. Any suggestion that a president of the Islamic Republic could overrule "The Supreme Guide" is too absurd to merit refutation.
The second illusion stems from the first. For over a year, Straw and his German and French colleagues have been talking to a certain Hassan Rouhani, a junior mulla with the title of secretary of The High Council of Islamic National Defense. By all accounts Rouhani is a bonviveur with a sense of humor. His friends say that, in his lighter moments, he makes a good imitation of the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
But anyone with the slightest knowledge of how things work in Tehran would know that Rouhani has no decision-making powers even on procedural matters.
The Europeans have never been able to see any of the real decision-makers (known as tasmimgiran) in Tehran let alone engage them in negotiation. Rouhani and other facade officials who talk to the Europeans may honestly believe that Iran is not up to mischief if only because they do not know what is going on. Only those in the camarilla around "The Supreme Guide" have the full picture. The doors of that camarilla, however, remain shut to the Europeans.
The Europeans also ignore the messianic nature of the ideology that sustains the Islamic Republic. That ideology sees itself in a global competition with Western liberalism of which the European Union is one manifestation. Khomeinism's ambition is to win that competition one day, and remold the global system on the basis of its vision. That ambition may seem laughable to outsiders who know that the Islamic Republic counts for little in the global balance of power. Some in the Tehran establishment also regard such ambitions as absurd. The truth, however, is that the system cannot act against its own nature.
The problem that the Europeans, among others, have with the Islamic Republic is not one of behavior, as Straw and his colleagues assume. The problem is with the nature of the Iranian regime.
Put in terms of practical power politics the problem is simple: The present global system is almost exclusively a Western creation. Francis Fukuyama's theory of "the end of history" is true in the sense that there no longer is a major ideological challenge to the Western world, which is now opposed only by a few oddballs such as North Korea, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Cuba. The Khomeinist regime sees itself as the successor of the late Soviet Union as the principal challenger of the West's global domination.
Talleyrand once said that there are powers that will not stop because they do not know how; they stop only when they are stopped. The experience of the past three decades shows that this is true of the Islamic Republic.
Hamid-Reza Asefi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran, has already dismissed the package of concessions that the Europeans and, to a lesser extent, the Bush administration, have offered Iran, as "a joke." He is not being frivolous. Almost half a century of Cold War with the USSR teaches at least one lesson: Your adversary will stop doing whatever it is that you don't like only if you stop him. If you cannot, he won't stop. Why should he?
If Iran has decided to get the bomb, it is not going to stop because Straw talks to a junior mulla. Nor would the promise of investment and trade persuade them to change course. As for the threat of "referring" them to the United Nations, then above-mentioned Asefi has already described it as "laughable".
The European initiative is not only useless but could also be dangerous. By fostering Tehran's illusion that the Islamic Republic could take the major powers for a ride, the European initiative strengthens the hands of those in the camarilla who believe, or pretend to believe, that their war of attrition against a "corrupt, cowardly and moribund West" is winnable. There are many ways of dealing with the Khomeinist challenge. The European imitative, now heading for another failure, is the worst.