By Mark Steyn
November 29, 2013
"Iran, U.S. Set to Establish Joint Chamber of Commerce within Month,” reports Agence-France Presse. Government official Abolfazi Hejazi tells the English-language newspaper Iran Daily that the Islamic Republic will shortly commence direct flights to America. Passenger jets, not ICBMs, one assumes — although, as with everything else, the details have yet to be worked out. Still, the historic U.S.–Iranian rapprochement seems to be galloping along, and any moment now the cultural-exchange program will be announced and you’ll have to book early for the Tehran Ballet’s season at the Kennedy Center (“Death to America” in repertory with “Death to the Great Satan”).
In Geneva, the participants came to the talks with different goals: The Americans and Europeans wanted an agreement; the Iranians wanted nukes. Each party got what it came for. Before the deal, the mullahs’ existing facilities were said to be within four to seven weeks of nuclear “breakout”; under the new constraints, they’ll be eight to nine weeks from breakout. In return, they get formal international recognition of their enrichment program, and the gutting of sanctions — and everything they already have is, as they say over at Obamacare, grandfathered in.
Many pundits reached for the obvious appeasement analogies, but Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal argued that Geneva is actually worse than Munich. In 1938, facing a German seizure of the Sudetenland, the French and British prime ministers were negotiating with Berlin from a position of profound military weakness: It’s easy to despise Chamberlain with the benefit of hindsight, less easy to give an honest answer as to what one would have done differently playing a weak hand across the table from Hitler 75 years ago. This time round, a superpower and its allies accounting for over 50 percent of the planet’s military spending was facing a militarily insignificant country with a ruined economy and no more than two to three months’ worth of hard currency — and they gave it everything it wanted.
I would add two further points. First, the Munich Agreement’s language is brutal and unsparing, all “shall”s and “will”s: Paragraph 1) “The evacuation will begin on 1 October”; Paragraph 4) “The four territories marked on the attached map will be occupied by German troops in the following order.” By contrast, the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, plus Germany) “Joint Plan of Action” barely reads like an international agreement at all. It’s all conditional, a forest of “would”s: “There would be additional steps in between the initial measures and the final step . . . ” In the postmodern phase of Western resolve, it’s an agreement to reach an agreement — supposedly within six months. But one gets the strong impression that, when that six-month deadline comes and goes, the temporary agreement will trundle along semi-permanently to the satisfaction of all parties.
Secondly, there are subtler concessions. Explaining that their “singular object” was to “ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon,” John Kerry said that “Foreign Minister Zarif emphasized that they don’t intend to do this, and the Supreme Leader has indicated there is a fatwa which forbids them to do this.” “The Supreme Leader” is not Barack Obama but Ayatollah Khamenei. Why is America’s secretary of state dignifying Khamenei as “the Supreme Leader”? In his own famous remarks upon his return from Munich, Neville Chamberlain referred only to “Herr Hitler.” “Der Führer” means, in effect, “the Supreme Leader,” but, unlike Kerry (and Obama), Chamberlain understood that it would be unseemly for the representative of a free people to confer respectability on such a designation. As for the Führer de nos jours, Ayatollah Khamenei called Israel a “rabid dog” and dismissed “the leaders of the Zionist regime, who look like beasts and cannot be called human.” If “the Supreme Leader”’s words are to be taken at face value when it comes to these supposed constraints preventing Iran from going nuclear, why not also when he calls Jews sub-human?
I am not much interested in whether “the Supreme Leader” can be trusted. Prudent persons already know the answer to that. A more relevant question is whether the U.S. can be trusted. Israel and the Sunni monarchies who comprise America’s least worst friends in the Arab world were kept in the dark about not only the contents of the first direct U.S.–Iranian talks in a third of a century but even an acknowledgment that they were taking place. The only tip-off into the parameters of the emerging deal is said to have come from British briefings to their former Gulf protectorates and the French getting chatty with Israel. A couple of days ago, Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to Prince Mohammed, the Saudi ambassador in London, was unusually candid about the Americans: “We were lied to, things were hidden from us,” he said. “The problem is not with the deal struck in Geneva but how it was done.”
“How it was done”: Some years ago, I heard that great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, caution that America risked being seen as harmless as an enemy and treacherous as a friend. The Obama administration seems to have raised the thought to the level of doctrine. What has hitherto been unclear is whether this was through design or incompetence. Certainly, John Kerry has been unerringly wrong on every foreign-policy issue for four decades, so sheer bungling stupidity cannot be ruled out.
But look at it this way: It’s been clear for some time that the United States was not going to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. That leaves only one other nation even minded to keep the option on the table: Israel. Hence the strange new romance between the Zionist Entity and the Saudi and Gulf cabinet ministers calling every night to urge them to get cracking: In the post-American world, you find your friends where you can, even if they’re Jews. But Obama and Kerry have not only taken a U.S. bombing raid off the table, they’ve ensured that any such raid by Israel will now come at a much steeper price: It’s one thing to bomb a global pariah, quite another to bomb a semi-rehabilitated member of the international community in defiance of an agreement signed by the Big Five world powers. Indeed, a disinterested observer might easily conclude that the point of the plan seems to be to box in Israel rather than Iran.
If it were to have that effect, the Sunni Arab states would be faced with a choice of accepting de facto Shia Persian hegemony — or getting the Saudis to pay the Pakistanis for a Sunni bomb. Nobody in Araby believes the U.S. can “contain” Iran even if it wants to. And, since the Geneva deal, nobody’s very sure the U.S. wants to.
Meanwhile, through the many months they kept their allies in the dark, Washington was very obliging to the mullahs. According to the Times of Israel, among the Iranian prisoners quietly released by the U.S. as a friendly pre-deal gesture is Mojtada Atarodi, arrested in 2011 for attempting to acquire nuclear materials. Iran has felt under no pressure to reciprocate. America is containing itself, in hopes of a quiet life.
Will it get one? The Guardian reports that last Saturday night at the Geneva InterContinental the final stages of the P5+1 talks were played out to the music bleeding through from the charity bash in the adjoining ballroom. At one point, the band played Johnny Cash:
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire . . .
So it does.