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Democracy and distrust

The internet version of this column by David Ignatius about U.S. negotiations with Iran is “What’s on Iran’s Mind.” However, the title that appeared in the hard copy edition of the Washington Post was “Countering Iran’s Distrust.”
The latter title seems to fit better, and it represents a good answer to liberals when they whine, “what’s the harm in talking to our enemies.” If we’re going to have “fruitful” negotiations with Iran, surely we must counter, at least to some extent, their “distrust” of us. But what would doing so require?
Ignatius suggests that our representative in the talks, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, should tell the Iranians that we support the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki. But if Iran isn’t yet convinced of our intentions in Iraq after all we’ve done to advance Shia interests, how can a mere assertion by a diplomat convince them?
Ignatius also says Iran might trust us more if we stopped broadcasting pro-democracy messages into their country. The Soviets also would have liked us to stop similar broadcasts into their bloc, but we wisely recognized the power of the freedom message, which eventually helped pave the way to bloodless victory in the Cold War. Why would we even consider a different course of action in the case of Iran?
In the end, trying to “counter Iran’s distrust” is a fool’s errand in much the same way that countering the distrust of Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein would have been. Iran’s goals of regional domination and the extermination of at least one of our leading allies are unacceptable to us. As long as that remains the case, Iran is wise to distrust us, and we are fools if we make concessions in the hope of countering that distrust.
Moreover (and I hope this is of academic interest only), even if the U.S. ceased to be an impediment to the interests of the mullahs, they still would not trust us. Great Britain had little influence over Iran after the 1950s. Yet, decades later the Iranian elites (and former elites) still believed that the British were pulling the strings. As late as the 1990s, this view prevailed, for example, among supporters of the last Shah’s son here in the U.S.
The U.S. is in an even more hopeless position than the British on the matter of trust. The fear Great Britain instilled was based on the power it once exerted. The fear we instill is based, in addition, on the mullahs’ view that we’re evil. When the success of negotiations depends on convincing the other side that you’re not evil, the better move may be not to negotiate at all.
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