Well into last weekend it looked as though Iran was going to win the latest round of negotiations — by a knockout, not on points. Secretary of State John Kerry had flown to Geneva to sign a deal that would have stuffed tens of billions of dollars into the pockets of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, easing the economic pressure — the pressure that had brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. The funds would have been turned over with no restrictions. Khamenei could have used them to further Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program — the program that negotiations were meant to stop.
In exchange, Iran’s rulers would not have been required even to begin to dismantle their nuclear-weapons programs. There would be no end to centrifuge manufacturing, no halt to the plutonium-weapons track, no “intrusive” international inspections.
Then, at the eleventh hour, came an unexpected twist: French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that Paris could not go along with what he called — with admirably undiplomatic candor — a “sucker’s deal.”
Others accused the French of currying favor with the Saudis in an attempt to win lucrative contracts. In truth, the Saudis are concerned. They see clearly that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to them and to the Emiratis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, the Azerbaijanis, and, of course, the Israelis.
The fact that France has some of the world’s foremost experts on both Iran and nuclear proliferation and the possibility that the French, over the past century, have learned a thing or two about the dangers of appeasement seem not to occur to those whose goal is to cut a deal with Iran — with the merits of that deal a secondary consideration.
Khamenei himself chimed in, tweeting that French officials were “hostile toward the Iranian nation.” Soon after came what might be interpreted as a warning: “A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.”
It is instructive to recall that a few days earlier Khamenei had, in effect, acknowledged that the deal being finalized would be a victory for Iran and a defeat for those on the other side of the table. He tweeted a photo of the Iranian delegation sitting at that table with this comment: “No one should consider our negotiating team as compromisers. These are the children of revolution.”
In other words, the Iranian side had not compromised — all the concessions were being offered by the U.S. and its European partners. And by refusing to give an inch, Khamenei’s negotiators were demonstrating their revolutionary credentials.
Americans have deluded themselves about the Iranian revolution from the start. I was working as a reporter in Iran in 1979 when, following the fall of the shah, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began to construct what he called an Islamic republic. Most diplomats and journalists were all too eager to jump to the comforting conclusion that Khomeini was a moderate. More than that: William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, called Khomeini a “Gandhi-like figure.” James Bill, an adviser to President Jimmy Carter, called the dour cleric a man of “impeccable integrity and honesty.” Andrew Young, Carter’s ambassador to the U.N., predicted that “Khomeini will eventually be hailed as a saint.”
Then, as now, abundant evidence contradicting such rosy assessments was willfully ignored. Among other things, Khomeini had always been implacably anti-American. “The U.S.A. is the foremost enemy of Islam,” he said in 1979. “It is a terrorist state by nature that has set fire to everything everywhere.”
Khomeini’s heirs — those “children of revolution” — have not mellowed. In 1995, Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president — invariably described in the major media as a moderate — said the “beautiful cry of ‘Death to America’ unites our nation.” Earlier this year, he doubled down: “Saying ‘Death to America’ is easy. We need to express ‘Death to America’ with action.” A few nuclear weapons could be helpful in that regard, don’t you think?
Rouhani is an experienced negotiator who, in a memoir published two years ago, explained that his strategy was to play off the U.S. against its European allies to create “gaps in the Western front.” Skilled Iranian diplomats, he has written, can prevent “consensus between America and other world powers — especially Europe, Russia, and China — over Iran.” That accomplished, it would be possible to “stand up against the conspiracies of America.”
The United States also has experienced negotiators, but their record is nothing to write home about. Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, American diplomats spent years talking with the despotic regime that rules North Korea in an effort to prevent it from becoming nuclear-armed. Over and over, concessions were made, aid was extended, agreements were signed, and progress was announced.
And then, in 2006, the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon for the first time — demonstrating that they had not really compromised at all and were still very much children of their own anti-Western revolution. A second nuclear test was conducted in 2009. The U.S strongly objected and vowed that North Korea would “pay a price for its actions.” But that was only bluster and bluff. On February 12, 2013, North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. Pyongyang is today developing missiles capable of delivering its nuclear weapons to all those regarded as enemies.
Khamenei and Rouhani no doubt look at this history and say to each other: If the North Koreans can sit down with the Americans, play their very weak cards, and walk away with the pot, surely we can do no worse. Khamenei and Rouhani were almost proven right — and they might still be. A new round of talks is scheduled to begin on November 20. Between now and then, those favoring appeasement of Iran will almost certainly be negotiating with the French — in a more muscular fashion, I fear, than they have with Iran’s “children of revolution.”
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.