This is an English version of an essay first published in Slovak.
On December 14, 2005, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered a televised speech in which he called the Nazi murder of six million Jews a fabrication. "They have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it above God, religion, and the prophets. If someone were to deny the existence of God... they would not bother him. However, if someone were to deny the myth of the Jews' massacre, all the Zionist mouthpieces and the governments subservient to the Zionists tear their larynxes and scream against the person as much as they can." In October 2005, he presided at a "World Without Zionism" conference. Banners called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." The use of English to display the slogans belied the explanation that such rhetoric was meant for internal consumption only.
Ahmadinejad's comments surprised Europe "It's really shocking that a head of state who has a seat in the United Nations can say such a thing," said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barrosso. The German foreign ministry summoned the Iranian chargé d'affaires to protest the "shocking" remarks.
Europe should not be shocked, however. Ahmadinejad's sentiments were nothing new. Exactly four years before Ahmadinejad's Holocaust-denial, Expediency Council Chairman ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani took the podium at Tehran University to deliver the Friday sermon, the official weekly policy statement of the Iranian government. In what should have been a wake-up call for any who believes that the Islamic Republic and the norms of Western society are compatible, Rafsanjani declared, "If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything… It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." U.S. and European analysts rationalized Rafsanjani's remarks, suggesting that he referred to self-defense only. Tellingly, though, many Iranian parliamentarians understood the Expediency Council Chairman to mean what he said: Threatening offensive use of a nuclear weapon.
Iranian figures ranging from Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to current Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene‘i and even so-called moderates like former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami have all called for Israel's destruction. Until Ahmadinejad, Iranian politicians have played their European counterparts like fiddles. Take Khatami: Addressing the Italian Parliament in March 1999, he declared, "Tolerance and exchange of views are the fruits of cultural richness, creativity, high-mindedness and harmony. One must recognize this opportunity." Khatami's conciliatory tone, though, was reserved only for gullible foreign diplomats, parliamentarians, and academics. He spoke with a different voice when addressing his domestic audience. In a televised address on October 24, 2000, for example, he declared, "In the Qur'an, God commanded to kill the wicked and those who do not see the rights of the oppressed… If we abide by human laws, we should mobilize the whole Islamic World for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime… If we abide by the Qur'an, all of use should mobilize to kill." Eradication of Israel remains Islamic Republic dogma. The problem is not one of politics, but rather one of ideology. This is where Brussels' strategy falls short.
Take Europe's critical engagement: Between 2000 and 2005, Iranian-European Union trade nearly tripled. During the same period, not only did Tehran's application of capital punishment double, but the Iranian government spent several billion dollars on its nuclear program. Iranian officials repeatedly exploit European openness to further revolutionary aims. On June 17, 2002, for example, European foreign ministers agreed to fast track a new trade pact with Iran. European Union officials like External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten lobbied hard for the deal, arguing, "There is more to be said for trying to engage and to draw these societies into the international community than to cut them off." Less than a week later, Denmark's Police Surveillance Agency intercepted Iranian agents seeking to assassinate several prominent Iranian dissidents and journalists.
Likewise, former European Commission President Romano Prodi spent his tenure seeking to bolster economic ties with Iran. His July 1998 visit to Tehran broke a long-standing taboo; Iran rewarded the Italian national oil company with a $3.8 billion gas exploitation deal. The erosion of European pressure on Iran coincided not with the empowerment, but rather the demise, of the reform movement. The following July, Iranian security forces and vigilantes sacked a Tehran University student dormitory. The government began shuttering newspapers and arresting journalists. It reversed civil liberties. European governments chastised the Iranian government gently; to take significant action would endanger commercial contracts. The Islamic Republic's hierarchy, in turn, dismissed European entreaties and continued on its anti-democratic course.
EU-3 negotiations with Tehran have followed a similar pattern. European diplomats project desperation. They assume the sincerity of its partners and constantly strive to find the magic formula which will enable the Ayatollah's to abandon their nuclear future. When British Foreign Minister Jack Straw assures the British public and the Iranian government that under no circumstances will force be used in the current dispute, he emboldens his Iranian adversaries to filibuster.
European diplomacy will fail for two reasons: First, the Islamic Republic's nuclear drive is motivated by domestic politics, not security concerns which diplomacy can address. Both anecdotes and covert opinion polling regularly find 80 percent of Iranians to have lost faith in the Islamic Republic. Iranians do not believe reform possible, but rather hope for systematic change. The vast majority are analogous to those in the Soviet Union who did not merely want glasnost but rather sought an end to Communist domination. Ten percent of Iranians would follow the Khatami's reformism. These are the Iranian equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev's proponents. The remainder believes in Ahmadinejad's hardline vision. They are the true believers, akin to the die-hard Stalinists who opposed reform to the end.
These true-believers and ayatollahs are faced with a booming population increasingly hostile to their rule. They hold the Islamic Republic's theocratic tenets above the popular will. Herein lays the nuclear card: If the Islamic Republic achieves nuclear capability, it can do whatever it wants domestically without fear of outside interference. It can, for example, deploy its Revolutionary Guard tanks against student protestors. It can liquidate political prisoners, as it did in 1989. European diplomats often speak of pursuing a China model, in which they would encourage Tehran's economic liberalization first. But Iran is not China. Demography matters. If the European Union tries to treat Iran as it has China, Europe should prepare for ten Tiananmen Squares.
The second reason European diplomacy is doomed to failure is the Revolutionary Guard. Inward looking and ideological, the Revolutionary Guard are the Islamic Republic's elites. Established by Ayatollah Khomeini because of his distrust of the ordinary Iranian military, Revolutionary Guard units are the trusted guardians of Iran's most sophisticated weapons systems and sensitive programs. European diplomats may drink grape juice together with their Iranian counterparts in Vienna, but Iranian diplomats simply have no knowledge of or influence over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The Iranian Foreign Ministry is not in the chain of command. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i, the only personality in Iran with the power to make binding decisions, has shown no willingness to engage, let alone sit down with, European leaders.
In recent years, the Revolutionary Guard—the prime backers of Ahmadinejad—have expanded their influence in Iran. The Supreme Leader has appointed Revolutionary Guard heads to the leadership of the Revolutionary Foundations, the uniquely Iranian institutions which monopolize import-export, the oil industry, and any significant hard currency earner. The Guard has managed to scuttle signed contracts allowing Turkish and European firms to operate cell phone networks and the new Tehran airport. It is this ideological and xenophobic core which controls both Iran's nuclear industry and its missile programs. Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and threats to "wipe Israel off the map" are the ingrained ideology of this group. Recent apocalyptic references by Ahmadinejad—who may just believe that he can hasten the return of the Hidden Imam, a Messianic Shi‘ite figure through the cleansing of violence and war—should frighten all Europeans. Diplomacy assumes sincerity of all partners, but Ahmadinejad shows every indication of wanting war, not peace.
Political problems can be resolved through diplomacy, but the ideological underpinnings of a hostile regime cannot. Pol Pot could not be dissuaded from genocidal xenophobia. Gamal Abdul Nasser would never abandon Arab nationalism. Saddam defiantly upholds the principles of his rule, even after his ouster from power. The Iranian leadership is no different. No amount of diplomacy will convince Iran's clerical leadership to abandon tenets and policies they see rooted in their own interpretation of theology. The Iranian leadership is as dangerous as its expanding arsenal. But, at least with Ahmadinejad's candid commentary, European officials can see the Islamic Republic for what it is rather than what they wish it to be.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. His most recent book is Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave, 2005).