On Friday, George Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood together in the White House to condemn Iran. "Iran, armed with a nuclear weapon, poses a grave threat to the security of the world," Mr. Bush said. "We will not be intimidated," Ms. Merkel added. The press conference marks a turning point in a decade-long saga. Europe's engagement with Iran has failed. While Iranian diplomats met with their British, French and German counterparts in Vienna and Geneva, Iranian technicians toiled to ready Iran's uranium enrichment capability. European officials discussed a China model for Iran, in which they could use trade to catalyze political liberalization. Between 2000 and 2005, EU trade with the Islamic Republic almost tripled. But rather than moderate, Iranian authorities used the hard currency to enhance their military. They built secret nuclear facilities and blocked inspections. They failed to explain why there were traces of weapons-grade uranium on Iranian centrifuges, and refused to detail what assistance Tehran received from Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. On Sept. 24, 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared Iran to be in non-compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty's Safeguards Agreement.
Still, diplomats and doves hold out hope. After a Jan. 12 phone conversation with Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Kofi Annan assured reporters that Tehran was interested in "serious and constructive negotiations." As Mr. Bush met Ms. Merkel, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the BBC that military action was "not on the agenda" and insisted that the crisis "can only be resolved by peaceful means." But while Mr. Bush and his European allies may agree to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council, traditional diplomacy will not work for a simple reason: Iran's quest for nuclear weapons has nothing to do with the U.S. or Europe. The crisis with Tehran is ideological, not political.
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Destruction of Israel is a pillar of the Islamic Republic's ideology. Soon after leading the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared, "Every Muslim has a duty to prepare himself for battle against Israel." President Ahmadinejad's recent Holocaust-denial and call for Israel to be "wiped off the map," may have shocked Europe, but his statements mark only a change in rhetorical style, not ideological substance. When it comes to Israel, there is no difference between hard-liners and reformers. While Mr. Annan honored Mohammad Khatami for his Dialogue of Civilizations, the reformist president's instructions to the Iranian people were less high-minded. "We should mobilize the whole Islamic World for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime," he told Iranian TV on Oct. 24, 2000. "If we abide by the Qur'an, all of us should mobilize to kill." In a Dec. 14, 2001 sermon, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, perhaps the second most powerful man in Iran and one often described as a pragmatist by Western officials and journalists alike, declared, "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything… It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." During a Sept. 22, 2003 military parade, authorities displayed a Shihab-3 missile draped with a banner reading, "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history."
The ideological venom of their leaders carries little weight among the people. While the Iran-Iraq War killed hundreds of thousands, Iran and Israel have never exchanged a single shot. Many Iranians express pride that Israeli president Moshe Katsav was born in Iran. Indeed, the real ire of ordinary Iranians is expressed toward their government, not the outside world. In a 2002 labor protest, workers demanding back pay marched through Tehran, chanting, "Forget about Palestine and think about us."
Iran's youth want no more to live under theocracy than do Americans or Europeans. Iran Institute for Democracy telephone polls sampling opinion in every Tehran neighborhood suggest that 80% of the population have lost faith in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian people have little say in their leadership. The Supreme Leader wields autocratic power and reigns for life. The Guardian Council selects who can run for office. Before the 2005 elections, this clerical council disqualified more than 1,000 candidates, allowing the public to choose from only eight, all of whom endorsed theocracy and opposed far-reaching reform. Ordinary Iranians ignore the sham: While the Iranian government claims 50% voter turnout, Iranian pilgrims in Iraq say it was less than 20%. Contrast that with Iraq, where 70% of the population braves bombs and bullets to vote.
The Iranian religious leadership recognizes that demography is against them. Reform is a slippery slope, democracy a theocrat's hemlock. For the Ayatollahs, there can be no Orange, Rose, or Cedar Revolutions. Popular will is irrelevant. Legitimacy comes not from the people, but from God as channeled through a cabal of religious leaders. While Western analysts divide Iran's politicians into hard-liners and reformists, the difference is one of style, not belief. Take Mr. Khatami: Viewed by diplomats as a reformer, he nevertheless demonstrated disdain for popular sovereignty. "Knowledge of God's commandment must be the foundation of … life," he wrote in the state-run daily Kayhan. "People are not able to comprehend God's will through the explanations contained in the Quran and Sunna. Acquiring such comprehension requires several years of studies and much effort." Democracy is fine, but only clerics should be able to participate fully. Khomeini's successor and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called liberal democracy "the source of all human torment."
Such statements ring hollow among the Iranian people. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Iran's constitutional revolution. Many people wonder why they no longer have today rights they had a century ago. Since the 1999 student protests, they have taken to the streets with increasing frequency to demand real reform. Iranians are losing their fear of the Islamic authorities. State control is eroding. Televised confessions once broke dissidents, now they build them. A stint in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison has become a badge of honor. Last summer, dissident author Akbar Ganji shook the Islamic Republic with a two-month hunger strike that captivated his countrymen. "I have become the symbol of justice in the face of tyranny," he wrote from prison, "my emaciated body exposing the contradictions of a government which has reversed justice and tyranny."
The ideological guardians can suppress wildfires of dissent, but Iran remains a tinderbox. Demography pours fuel on the fire. The leadership is following a different China model: Only with a nuclear deterrent can the ayatollahs launch the Cultural Revolution that will ensure their survival without fear of outside interference. The Revolutionary Guards are preparing for not one, but dozens of Tiananmen Squares.
As they cleanse their home front, the theocrats may use their nuclear capability to act upon their ideological imperative to destroy Israel. The West once ignored Saddam Hussein's threats against Kuwait. But dictators often mean what they say. Even if Iran does not use its bomb, a nuclear deterrent will enable it to lash out conventionally without fear of consequence.
Diplomacy can only work when both sides are sincere. Like an abused spouse, Western policy makers blame themselves rather than understand the fault is not theirs. There is no magic formula waiting to be discovered. To Tehran, the West is naïve. More diplomacy will only give the Islamic Republic time to achieve its nuclear goal. The only solutions that can rectify the problem are those that deny the Islamic Republic its nuclear arsenal or those that enable Iranians to cast aside theocracy and its aggressive ideology and instead embrace freedom.
Mr. Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos" (Palgrave, 2005).