America and its allies must make a critical choice, we are told: agreement or coercion. “In politics as in life,” Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif tells us in his video message from Vienna, “you can’t gain at the expense of others. Such gains are always short lived. Only balanced agreements can withstand the test of time.”
It is a masterful piece of diplomatic rhetoric. You might not even notice that in the next breath he shifts his posture to endorse coercive confrontation. The real threat, he says, is violent extremism, and Iran stands ready to serve as an ally in the fight against the dangerous barbarians of ISIS. Suddenly coercion is the clear and honorable path, the obvious choice in the face of a serious peril that poses a grave threat. There is no talk of pursuing agreement with these “hooded men who are ravaging the cradle of civilization.” Instead, we should stand united in order to fight these extremists in an “existential battle.”
So which is it? Is coercion doomed to failure, and agreement the only path for resolving conflicts? Or is a united front against a deadly foe capable of overcoming enemies who represent an existential threat? Both propositions cannot be true, and yet both are offered to us seamlessly.
It would seem the real message we are to take away is not that agreement must always be chosen over coercion, but that Iran is prepared to be peaceful and forgiving. The offer, if we choose to believe it, is that they stand prepared to serve as an ally and friend in a battle against dangerous extremism. “This,” Zarif says, “has always been Iran’s message.”
But of course it has not always been Iran’s message. During the last round of deadlines, Ayatollah Khamenei led crowds in a chant of “Death to America.” Considering that the talks pertain to the development of nuclear weapons, a listener might wonder whether it is really true that ISIS and not Iran poses an existential threat to the West. Clearly, by the standard Iran itself is proposing here, such a threat is properly met with a strong and unified front. Compromise is not for existential threats. We should look at Iran’s true message, its longstanding message, and that message for decades has been “Death to America.”
Far from being the first nation to rise up against violent extremism, Iran has been one of its chief exporters. Our own State Department, Iran’s negotiating partner, has designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. The standard for such a designation requires a finding that the country has “repeatedly” provided support for acts of international terrorism. Even in its response to ISIS, Iran has acted through violent proxy forces one of which is officially designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US Department of State.
It is true, as the Foreign Minister says, that this crisis is unnecessary, and that the courage to compromise is key to its resolution. Iran need not continue to pursue the technologies associated with nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. He is not proposing a compromise of his own side’s position, however, but demanding yet more concessions of the West. This, even though our own concessions have already been far greater than previously revealed to the American people. Even then, the Iranian government released a “fact sheet” about Western concessions that was boldly out of order with the facts.
Presumably our own diplomats are as well-trained in rhetoric as Foreign Minister Zarif. Presumably they are able to recognize the clever manipulation of language and theme, emotion and misdirection. Surely they are not fooled by these ancient techniques, which are as old as Aristotle. Our President is said to be a master of oratory. None of them are fooled, and neither should we be. We should insist on a clear-headed and firm response to Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons technology, and accept no agreement that leaves it in place.