Readers of Henry Kissinger’s great history of modern international relations, Diplomacy, will remember that his discussion of Ronald Reagan expressed some amazement that this unsophisticated Californian, who had hardly any formal education in history, had managed to unify the two main conflicting tendencies in American foreign policy: the democracy-promoting-idealism of Wilson and the realpolitik balance-of-power realism of Teddy Roosevelt and Nixon. One example that comes to mind is Reagan’s treatment of Soviet leaders: to Gorbachev personally, Reagan extended every gesture of cordiality, willingness to engage, and diplomatic dignity, but did so without ever letting anyone forget that he considered the Soviet system fatally illegitimate, and its demise both inevitable and worth bringing about as rapidly as possible. He never let the Soviets forget that he wanted to end their system even when sitting across the dinner table from them.
Obama should think carefully about the Reagan example, because it was a balancing act between principle and pragmatism that proves difficult for even the most talented presidents — as Obama himself has just demonstrated. His statements on Iran so far sounded an essential theme — that Iranian leaders must govern by consent and not by coercion. Yet we still don’t know whether Obama considers the recent election to have been illegitimate merely because it was marked by indications of fraud and by violence, or whether he thinks the political system of Iran fundamentally illegitimate, and therefore all of its election results the fruits of a poisoned tree, fraud or no fraud, violence or no violence.
A strong realist case can be made that the essential problem we face in Iran is the inherent illegitimacy of the regime, which stages elections among candidates approved on a case-by-case basis by unaccountable clerics whose philosophy of governance, the “mandate of the wise,” is by definition anti-democratic. It is because the regime does not represent the long-term interests of the Iranian people, and is founded instead on a commitment to extremism and messianic conflict, that it does not really respect the rule of law, and cannot be trusted with the advanced nuclear technology of uranium enrichment or plutonium separation. It is because the regime is illegitimate that it cannot be a good-faith partner in fixing the problems of the region, and instead makes them all worse. It is because the regime is illegitimate that it depends on other illegitimate regimes (like Venezuela) and on the terrorists it sponsors, and that is also the reason they all depend on it.
The most “realist” view of long-range U.S. interests would put democracy-promotion front and center in the case of Iran. Obama should make it clear that he considers the regime illegitimate so long as its elections are not free and fair; and that he looks forward to its demise even if he is willing to engage with its leaders in the same cordial diplomatic settings that so many other American leaders have used to duel with our adversaries, leveraging American power to make diplomacy succeed.
Conservatives, too, should remember that Reagan was not Dulles; he did not really believe that regime-sustaining legitimacy could be conferred on an illegitimate system simply by talking to it. The Iranian regime is illegitimate, and its demise is inevitable, and nothing can change that. What we should be negotiating for now is to limit the damage the mullahs may cause on their way down, and begin mitigating the many problems they will leave behind.