Something interesting is happening with regard to the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Slowly the blame is shifting from the mullahs to the Bush administration as the debate is redirected to tackle the hypothetical question of U.S. military action rather than the Islamic Republic's real misdeeds. "No War on Iran" placards are already appearing where "No Nukes for Iran" would make more sense.
The attempt at fabricating another "cause" with which to bash America is backed by the claim that the mullahs are behaving badly because Washington refuses to talk to them. Some of this buzz is coming from those who for years told the U.S. to let them persuade Iran to mend its ways. They include German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his British and French colleagues in the European Union trio that negotiated with Iran for years. Preparing to throw in the towel, they now say the U.S. should "directly engage" Iran. That would enable them to hide their failures and find a pretext for blaming future setbacks on the U.S.
The "engage Iran" coalition also has advocates in the U.S. Over the past few weeks they have hammered the "engagement" theme with op-eds, TV soundbites and speeches. Some have recommended John Kennedy's "sophisticated leadership" during the Cuban missile crisis as a model for George W. Bush. The incident has entered American folklore as an example of "brilliant diplomacy," but few bother to examine the small print. The crisis, as you might recall, started when the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, something they were committed not to do in a number of accords with the U.S. Kennedy reacted by threatening to quarantine Cuba until the missiles were removed. The Soviets ended up "flinching" and agreed to removal.
In exchange they got two things. First, the U.S. agreed never to take or assist hostile action against Castro, offering his regime life insurance. The second was to remove the Jupiter missiles installed in Turkey as part of NATO's defenses. Instead of being punished, Castro and his Soviet masters were doubly rewarded for undoing what they shouldn't have done in the first place. And Castro was free to do mischief not only in Latin America but also in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf, often on behalf of Moscow, right up to the fall of the U.S.S.R. Applied to Iran, the "Kennedy model" would provide the mullahs, now facing mounting discontent at home, with a guarantee of safety from external pressure, allowing them to suppress their domestic opponents and intensify mischief-making abroad.
Believe it or not, the second model for engaging Iran is actually Jimmy Carter's policy towards the mullahs. Mr. Carter has called for a "diplomatic solution," and Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, has published an op-ed blaming the Bush administration for the crisis. He writes: "Artificial deadlines, propounded most often by those who do not wish the U.S. to negotiate in earnest, are counterproductive. Name-calling and saber rattling, as well as a refusal to even consider the other side's security concerns, can be useful tactics only if the goal is to derail the negotiating process."
Let's forget that the "artificial deadlines" have been set by the IAEA and the U.N. Security Council, and that most of the "name-calling and saber rattling" has come from Tehran. But let us recall one fact that Mr. Brzezinski does not mention--that the Carter administration did "engage" with the mullahs without artificial deadlines, saber rattling and name-calling. The results for the U.S. were disastrous.
In 1979, soon after the mullahs seized power, Mr. Carter sent Ayatollah Khomeini a warm congratulatory letter. Mr. Carter's man at the U.N., a certain Andrew Young, praised Khomeini as "a 20th-century saint." Mr. Carter also tapped his closest legal advisor, the late Lloyd Cutler, as U.S. ambassador to the mullarchy.
A more dramatic show of U.S. support for the mullahs came when Mr. Brzezinski flew to Algiers to meet Khomeini's prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan. This was love at first sight--to the point where Mr. Carter approved the resumption of military supplies to Iran, even as the mullahs were executing Iranians by the thousands, including many whose only "crime" was friendship with the U.S. The Carter administration's behavior convinced the mullahs that the U.S. was a paper tiger and that it was time for the Islamic Revolution to highlight hatred of America. Mr. Carter reaped what he had sown when the mullahs sent "student" fanatics to seize the U.S. embassy compound, a clear act of war, and hold its diplomats hostage for 444 days. "The Carter administration's weakness was a direct encouragement to [anti-American] hard-liners," wrote Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the hostage-takers, years later.
Mr. Brzezinski's op-ed took the title "Been There, Done That," meant as a sneering nod to events that led to the liberation of Iraq. A more apt title, however, is: "Been There, Done That, Learned Nothing"--a nod to Mr. Brzezinski's failure to learn the lessons of Iran even three decades later.
The third model for engaging Iran is the Clinton model. Beating his own drum, Bill Clinton has rejected the threat of force and called for "engaging" Iran. This is how he put it in a recent speech: "Anytime somebody said in my presidency, 'If you don't do this, people will think you're weak,' I always asked the same question for eight years: 'Can we kill 'em tomorrow?' If we can kill 'em tomorrow, then we're not weak." Mr. Clinton's pseudo-Socratic method of either/or-ing issues out of existence is too well-known to merit an exposé. This time, however, Mr. Clinton did not ask enough questions. For example, he might have asked: What if by refusing to kill some of them today we are forced to kill many more tomorrow? Also: What if, once assured that we are not going to kill them today, they regroup and come to kill us in larger numbers? We all know the answers.
Mr. Clinton did not reveal that in 1999 he offered the mullahs "a grand bargain" under which the Islamic Republic would be recognized as the "regional power" in exchange for lip service to U.S. "interests in the Middle East." As advance payment for the "bargain" Mr. Clinton apologized for "all the wrongs that my country and culture have done" to Iran, whatever that was supposed to mean. The "bargain," had it not been vetoed by the "Supreme Guide" in Tehran, might have secured Mr. Clinton the Nobel Peace Prize he coveted, but it would have sharpened the mullahs' appetite for "exporting" revolution.
President Bush can learn from the Kennedy, Carter and Clinton models by not repeating their mistakes. What the U.S. needs is an open, honest and exhaustive debate on what to do with a regime that claims a mission to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East, wipe Israel off the map, create an Islamic superpower, and conquer the world for "The Only True Faith." The options are clear: retreat and let the Islamic Republic advance its goals; resist and risk confrontation, including military conflict; or engage the Islamic Republic in a mini-version of Cold War until, worn out, it self-destructs.
With the options clear, Messrs. Carter, Brzezinski and Clinton along with other "engagers" would have to tell us which they favor and, if they like none, what alternative they offer. Calling for talks is just cheap talk. It is important to say what the proposed talks should be about. In the meantime, talk of "constructive engagement" is sure to encourage President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's intransigence. Why should he slow down, let alone stop, when there are no bumps on the road?
Mr. Taheri is author of "L'Irak: Le Dessous Des Cartes" (Editions Complexe, 2002).