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It's said that in the days of the Caesars, an Auriga slave would stand behind the dux, whispering, "Thou art mortal" over and again, so the boss didn't get too caught up in his own glory. We wish somebody was standing behind the current president of the United States, whispering, "Careful, careful" in his ear.

Iran and the United States may not be at war, but the countries are at each others' throats. This president of the United States likes to frame things in wins and losses for himself and his administration. But there are many others to think about, and we don't mean only Americans.

Iran grew up in a tough neighborhood, and acts like it. It has proxies all over the world, and they all have their hands on guns or missile launchers. They could strike out anywhere, and sometimes do. How handle such a regime?

Carefully.

Speaking of careful dealings with Iran, we remember an editorial that appeared on this page in 2004. Which might sound like a long time ago, but in geopolitical matters, it was only yesterday. It was written by a much wiser editor, and it stands up to the test of time, or at least the test of 16 years. As we were reading through it, we thought that much of it could be repeated today. So why not, with a little editing for space, do just that?

It was titled "On bargaining with the ayatollahs."

cc: The Trump administration

From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Sept. 24, 2004, editorial column:

THE SOLEMN ayatollahs who run Iran aren't much given to humor, except of the unintentional kind. They've been up to their old tricks again, saying that demands to keep them from obtaining nuclear weapons are illegal.

Illegal? This outraged reaction comes from a country that flouted international law and civilized behavior when it attacked a foreign embassy (ours) in 1979, then held our diplomats prisoners for more than a year. Since then, it's continued to play games with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which continues to pass resolutions demanding that Iran end its nuclear program--and continues to be ignored.

Now the ayatollahs have announced that they won't honor their previous promises to suspend their nuclear programs.

Is anybody really surprised?

Not one, not two, but three European foreign ministers--Britain's Jack Straw, Germany's Joschka Fischer and, of course, our favorite, Dominique de Villepin of the latest French republic--had made a pilgrimage to the Land of the Ayatollahs. Now they were returning waving the usual scrap of paper. They had a solemn promise that Iran would "suspend [its] uranium-enrichment and reprocessing activities ..."

O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! You'd have thought it was the Versailles peace treaty being proclaimed, and indeed the agreement with the ayatollahs would shortly prove about as sound.

But at the time, there was general elation in European capitals at this latest Peace in Our Time. As an extra added bonus, to quote the cereal boxes, here was also a chance to sneer at that cowboy in the White House. To quote the Guardian on the happy news:

"The agreement marks a significant victory for the European Union's policy of 'conditional engagement' and the use of carrots and sticks, in contrast to threats from the United States against the Islamic republic, part of George Bush's 'axis of evil.' ''

This would show the Americans! See what European finesse can accomplish compared to Washington's all-sticks, no-carrots tactics!

Oh, all mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe! Or as another writer in the Guardian put it more prosaically: "Iran's agreement to allow unlimited inspections of its nuclear facilities and to suspend its uranium enrichment program marks a tremendous success for European diplomacy . . . . To date [America's] polarizing, aggressive pressure tactics have mostly made a difficult problem worse. Europe demonstrated yesterday that there is a different, more effective way. And it is not the American way."

Ni-i-i-ce axis of evil--so reasonable, so trustworthy, so easily tamed if you have any sort of talent for diplomacy, old chap.

Iran's ayatollahs are true believers. To them, truth is whatever serves their purposes, legality whatever they are moved to do. And to the ayatollahs, America is the Great Satan. Once you've established that somebody else is Lucifer incarnate, it's easy enough to believe that anything goes when resisting, or even undermining, that devil.

Iran has made a career of spitting at the West in general and America in particular ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979. That was the year our old buddy the Shah got kicked out of power by an irate people fed up with his corrupt ways and secret police.

In place of the corrupt Shah, we got the modern world's first functioning theocracy in Iran--and the consequences have been toxic. Iran blatantly supports international terrorism aimed at Israel, has assisted al-Qaida members in slipping across its borders, and has long been trying to acquire nuclear weapons. The prospect of weapons in the hands of this radically anti-Western regime is beyond scary; it's nightmarish.

HERE'S JUST one example of how Iran's rulers think, or rather don't. It's our favorite excerpt from a "sermon" delivered at Tehran University by Iran's mullah-in-chief, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001:

"If one day the world of Islam comes to possess the [nuclear] weapons currently in Israel's possession, on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end." And the mullah meant Dead because, as he explained, it would take only one nuke to destroy the entire Jewish state while the Israelis could only hope to damage the Islamic world here and there if they launched theirs.

What's a few million incidental casualties if at last the Jews could be wiped out?

Nor is this an exceptional line of "thought" in Iran; its leaders have made many similar boasts since.

How deal with such a regime? Carefully. And without illusions. Much as one would talk to the Mad Hatter at Alice's tea party. Besides, Washington really isn't in much of a position to exert diplomatic pressure. With no official relations and only the barest of indirect contacts, Iran and the United States are at a standoff that's continued for more than a quarter-century. With nuclear weapons at issue, that's not a good way to do business. It's more Tehran's choice than Washington's, and so can scarcely be helped. Messages will have to be sent some other way.

The chances that Iran will develop nuclear weaponry and then share it with some terrorist outfit are all too good, and all too frightening. Let's hope somebody in Washington is drawing up plans for a response to this danger more effective than UN resolutions. The alternative to confronting Tehran is to wake up one morning to a radioactive Middle East. Or maybe a nuclear blast a lot closer to home.

It's unlikely the UN and the Europeans will have much success negotiating with Tehran, but they need to keep the pressure on, like a good cop. Meanwhile, Washington can play bad cop, and try to get its message across in less subtle fashion.

Is it just coincidence that this week the United States agreed to sell the Israelis 500 bunker-buster bombs--the kind that could be used to destroy underground nuclear facilities like Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz? That the sale was made public indicates that a message other than diplomatic is being sent to the ayatollahs.

Editorial on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: Careful, careful

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