“On the foreign policy front . . . I find myself wondering why we cannot regard another country, in this case Iran, as just that, as one more country which we would regard as neither friend nor foe, with whom we are prepared to deal on a day-to-day basis, neither idealizing it nor running it down, keeping to ourselves (here, of course, I am speaking about our government) our views about its domestic political institutions and practices, and interesting ourselves only in those aspects of its official behavior which touched our interests—maintaining in other words, a relationship with it of mutual respect and courtesy, but distant.” George Kennan wrote those words in his diary on March 8, 1998, after some thoughts on “the scandal of Mr. Clinton’s relationship to his Jewish girl intern.” Kennan died too soon. The day of his Iran policy has come.
This is the day of the extended hand, which Obama promised in his first inaugural address. The American government is no longer disgusted by the Iranian government, if ever it really was: in 2009, during the democratic rebellion in Iran, we certainly kept to ourselves, to use Kennan’s words, our views about its domestic political institutions and practices; or rather, we uttered hollow phrases of routine condemnation and moved on. But we are partners now, Washington and Tehran, and not only in the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. The administration hopes for an Iranian contribution also to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian excruciation. (There is no such solution. It is now a war to the death between secular tyranny and religious terrorism—the predictable, and often-predicted, consequence of leaving Syria alone.) There is wariness on both sides, of course; but generally there is a bizarre warmth between the governments, a climate of practicality and cordiality, as if a new page has been turned in a history of ugly relations, as if the ugliness of those relations were based only in illusion and misunderstanding. There is a new government in Tehran, isn’t there?
No, there isn’t. There is only a new president. Hassan Rouhani is an improvement over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since he is not a lunatic. He does not deny that the Holocaust happened, which for the Islamic Republic counts as a breakthrough in enlightenment. But it is important to remember, during this explosion of good feelings, that Iran is still the Islamic Republic, a theocratic tyranny ruled by a single man, a haughty cleric who subsumes the state beneath religion and his interpretation of it, and maintains his power by means of a fascistic military organization that brutalizes the population and plunders the economy—liberticide and prey, as a poet once wrote about another dictator. This same mullah-king supports the murderer in Damascus and the murderers in Lebanon and Gaza, and remorselessly pursues a foreign policy animated by anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism and intra-Muslim hatred. We may have extended our hand, but the Supreme Leader—the title itself is repugnant to decent modern ears—has not unclenched his fist. The smiles of his president and his foreign minister must not blind us to the scowl that is the true face of this cruel and criminal regime.
This does not mean that we must not negotiate with it. I appreciate the need for a diplomatic exploration of the Iranian nuclear challenge, though I prefer a deal that represents a strategic decision by Iran to renounce nuclear weaponry, not a strategic decision by Iran to find a cunning way out of the sanctions, and I resent the suggestion by the White House that anybody who is skeptical of its interim agreement is for war. Strenuous negotiations demand strenuous sanctions: the stronger our diplomatic position, the greater the likelihood that we will not resort to force. The thrill of diplomacy must not be allowed to obscure or to soften its purpose. Nor should it shrink our understanding of America’s role in the world. The abandonment of human rights as a primary and ardently pursued goal of American foreign policy—the Obama administration has returned American statecraft to its pre-Bosnia, pre-Rwanda days: we will have to be educated again by history, and by France—has been justified, in the case of Iran, by the urgency of the nuclear question. American support of democratization in Iran, it is said, would jeopardize the American effort to strike a deal on nuclearization. And so we must choose between a nuclear-free Iran and a tyranny-free Iran. But it is a false choice, designed to ratify the administration’s prior lack of appetite (and lack of nerve) for the promotion of freedom. We discovered the phoniness of the choice in our experience with the Soviet Union. You may still recall the twentieth century. Soviet missiles threatened the United States then infinitely more than Iranian centrifuges threaten us now, but arms control was not permitted to eclipse human rights in our policy toward the nuclear dictatorship. And even though we were prepared to offend, with our “moralism,” the interlocutors with the ICBMs, we did not fail—not at arms control nor, eventually, at human rights; and we learned that human rights, too, had vast strategic implications. A people is always more important than a government.
Not long ago I was looking for a certain passage in Niebuhr, and I came upon his observation that “there are two ways of denying our responsibilities to our fellowmen”: “seeking to dominate them by our power” and “seeking to withdraw from our responsibilities to them.” It was not the passage I was seeking, and as I kept scouring the marked-up books I bumped into the great man’s call to “widen the conception of interest,” so that “the sense of justice must prevent prudence from becoming too prudential in defining interest.” This is the Niebuhr that our ostentatiously reflective president forgot, or never knew. He is withdrawn and we have withdrawn. We are leavers. We leave to pivot, but we do not pivot. We respect others too much to help them: how would contempt differ? Our friends doubt us, our enemies play us. We stand for too little and we stand for too few. The post-American world is here: behold it and weep.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.