Iran Is Not China And Obama Is Not Nixon: Obama's Appeasement Policy
26 February 2015
By Amir Taheri
What do George Clooney, Jack Straw and Zbigniew Brzezinski have in common?
The Hollywood star who sells coffee machines in TV ads, the former British
foreign secretary, and the American ex-National Security adviser are among a
growing number of Western elites who urge rapprochement with the Islamic
Republic even if that meant appeasing the mullahs.
The idea of making a deal with the mullahs is not new. Even before Ayatollah
Khomeini seized power, the US and Britain were in close contact with his
entourage thanks to a network of agents posing as academics, businessmen and
simple wellwishers. All US presidents since Jimmy Carter have tried to woo
the mullahs and some, like Ronald Reagan, even smuggled arms to Iran through
Israel to tip the balance of the Iran-Iraq war in favor of the ayatollah.
President Bill Clinton's second term was marked by the myth of the ''Grand
Bargain'' with Iran. Clinton and his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
apologized to Tehran for unspecified ''wrongs'' that the US and the West in
general had done to Iran over the centuries. Clinton even tried to arrange an
''accidental'' handshake with President Mohammad Khatami but failed because
the latter was ordered from Tehran to steer clear of the leader of the
Here is what Clinton said at a meeting on the margins of the World Economic
Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2005: ''Iran today is, in a sense, the only
country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that
the ideas that I subscribe to are defended by a majority.''
And here is what Clinton had to say in a television interview with Charlie
Rose a few days later: ''Iran is the only country in the world that has now
had six elections since the first election of President Khatami [in 1997].
[It is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including
Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have
won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections: Two for president;
two for the Parliament, the Majlis; two for the mayoralties. In every single
election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote.
There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my
In other words, Clinton believed that the Islamic Republic was more
''progressive'' than the United States of America or any other Western
Obama's appeasement policy
However, it is since the election of Barack Obama as president that the
''appease the mullahs'' industry has gone into top gear. One reason for this
is Obama's fascination with the Khomeinist regime. ''Obama understands our
revolution,'' says Sadeq Zibakalam, a Tehran university teacher with ties to
President Hassan Rouhani's administration. ''We would be unwise not to
respond to his show of goodwill.''
As a black man who feels ''the sufferings of generations of African slaves''
and the ''massacre of native Americans,'' Obama cannot but admire those who
stand up to ''American bullying.'' He has rejected the long-held American
conceit of being ''special'' and is determined to cut the US down to size,
the Iranian analyst believes. Obama has written at least five letters to
former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei,
implicitly endorsing the Islamic Republic's ambition to become the regional
''They have a path to break [their] isolation and they should seize it,''
Obama has urged the mullahs. ''Because if they do, there is incredible talent
and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very
successful regional power.''
Obama has also set aside five UN Security Council resolutions on Iran's
nuclear project to seek a give-and-take deal with Tehran on dubious terms. In
the process he has dropped the key demand in all those resolutions that the
Islamic Republic stop its uranium enrichment program.
''Obama has no problem with the Islamic Republic projecting its power in the
Middle East,'' says Hamid Zomorrodi, a political researcher in Tehran.
''Under the Shah, Iran was a regional superpower with the blessing of the US.
Obama is ready to offer the same blessing to the current regime in Tehran.
The trouble is that the current Iranian regime thinks it can become a
regional superpower without the American blessing.'' The Shah's mistake was
to think that he needed the Americans. The mullahs believe that all they need
is to neutralize the US. Obama is doing that for them.
The Western approach to the Khomeinist regime has been based on at least two
illusions. The first is that one is dealing with a normal nation-state
pursuing the normal interests of any classic nation-state based on the
Westphalian model. A nation-state is interested in security, trade, access to
natural resources and markets, being consulted on regional and global issues
and, of course, a measure of prestige. However, like other revolutionary
regimes, the Khomeinist regime does not, and indeed cannot, behave like a
classic, Westphalian nation-state. Under Khomeini and his successors, it has
been forced to behave like a cause rather than a state. In other words, this
regime does not want anything in particular because it wants everything.
Regarding itself as the sole possessor of ''legitimacy'' among all the 192
members of the United Nations, the Khomeinist regime does not consider itself
bound by an international law created by ''Zionists and Cross-Worshippers.''
The second illusion is that Westerners seeking a deal with Iran have often
believed that a ''Grand Bargain'' could be pulled off with a one-shot effort.
''We plan to go to Tehran, see what they want and give them what is
reasonable,'' said Hans-Dietrich Genscher, then West German Foreign Minister
in 1990. A quarter of a century later, Obama is pursuing the same mirage.
Right now a concerted campaign is under way to clinch a deal, almost any
deal, with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions.
In the final phase of Ahmadinejad's presidency, Obama offered a number of
major concessions to Iran through secret negotiations held in Oman. These
included recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium ''up to a point,'' as
noted above, in violation of the Security Council resolutions that demand a
complete stop. Another concession was giving Russia, which Tehran regards as
a power capable of counter-balancing the US and Europe, a direct role in the
negotiations. A deal seemed imminent during talks held in Almaty, Kazakhstan,
but collapsed after ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei demanded ''further
Hopes of reaching a deal were revived with the victory of the faction led by
former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in presidential elections in 2013.
The faction's connection with Washington since the ''Irangate'' days in the
mid-1980s was regarded by the Obama administration as an opportunity to
persuade the Islamic Republic to abandon its messianic revolutionary
ambitions and start behaving like a nation-state rather than a cause. The
fact that a similar calculation failed during the faction's previous
stewardship of Iranian affairs under both Rafsanjani and President Mohammad
Khatami was conveniently ignored.
Scores of research papers and op-eds published by American think tanks and
individual pundits perpetuate two myths. The first is that the Rafsanjani
faction, of which both Khatami and the current President Hassan Rouhani are
members, is genuinely interested in reform and, more importantly, capable of
re-orienting the regime away from a revolutionary strategy towards a
That assumption, however, is open to debate. During its control of the state
apparatus for 16 consecutive years under Rafsanjani and Khatami, the faction
did not introduce a single major political, social or economic reform. Its
apologists blame that failure on the faction led by Khamenei, who is supposed
to be anti-reform and always keen to veto any change. That excuse, however,
is hard to sustain because there is not a single instance of any reform
project presented by Rafsanjani and Khatami but vetoed by Khamenei.
The second myth is that what is needed is a change of behavior by the Islamic
Republic. The trouble, however, is that the Islamic Republic's behavior is an
inevitable result of its nature as a revolutionary regime and not contingent
on this or that faction's tactical choice. The scorpion does not sting
because it wants to be awkward; it has to sting in order to survive, its
behavior being dictated by its DNA.
The Iran lobby in Washington and London, among other places, has always
dreamt of a ''Nixon in China'' solution for the Iranian problem, which, most
admit, is at the root of most other problems in the Middle East today. The
dream is inspired by President Richard Nixon's state visit to China in 1972,
a visit that led to the normalization of relations between Washington and
''The president should consider going to Tehran,'' says Flynt Leverett a
former CIA analyst who has written a whole book on the analogy drawing on his
knowledge of China. The idea has received sympathetic echoes in some American
think tanks. However, like all historical analogies, the ''Nixon in China''
one, for a number of reasons, could be misleading when applied to Iran.
To start with, the initiative for the ''Nixon in China'' denouement came from
Beijing, not Washington. By the end of the 1960s, China had started to take
the measure of the damage it had done to itself through almost two decades of
revolutionary madness, especially after 1966 when the so-called Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution led to countless tragedies across the nation.
By the early 1970s China was just emerging from a series of famines, largely
induced by Mao Zedong's collectivization policy, tragedies that, according to
Frank Dikötter in his magisterial book Mao's Great Famine, claimed at least
45 million lives. A more personal account of the great famine of 1958-62 is
provided by Chinese author Xun Zhou in his book Forgotten Voices.
Worse still, China saw itself surrounded by hostile neighbors. In
geopolitical terms, China is an ''island'' nation. To its north it is
isolated by the vast deserts of the two Mongolias and the seemingly endless
wasteland that is Siberia. In the west it is cordoned off by interconnected
deserts and high plateaus larger than Europe. The Himalayan uplands seal the
country's southwestern border. In the south and southeast, China is cordoned
off by the tropical forests of India and Indo-China. Across the water in the
east, China faces Japan, its ancestral foe, and, farther away, the looming
menace of the United States in the Pacific. Of China's 14 neighbors none,
save perhaps Pakistan, could be regarded as non-hostile, if only because the
People's Republic has irredentist disputes with all of them. In the 1960s the
Soviet Union simply annexed large tracts of Chinese land after a series of
border skirmishes. The two Communist giants had fallen out as a result of
Mao's firm and loud opposition to Nikita Khrushchev's ''ideological
revisionism.'' For its part, China had inflicted a series of defeats on the
Indian army, annexing large tracts of Indian land in Kashmir-Ladakh.
Profiting from the confusion caused by the Vietnam War, China had also moved
into parts of Vietnamese territory.
By 1971, China's only supposed ally Pakistan had been defeated by India, with
the help of the Soviet Union, allowing the emergence of Bangladesh, another
anti-Chinese state, on its eastern flank. Some in Beijing feared that a
similar scenario could be pushed through in Tibet or even East Turkestan (Xinjiang)
with Indian and Soviet support. Lacking a blue-water navy and a credible air
force, China at the time felt itself exposed in the face of its Soviet
ideological rival and an American ''superpower'' still smarting from its
wounds in Korea and Vietnam. It made sense for China to tone down its
Reporters of my generation witnessed the change of tone as early as 1970
during our first visit to the People's Republic. At the time, China had
started putting feelers to Iran about restoring diplomatic ties as a first
step towards a dialogue with the United States, then Iran's major ally. As
Nixon's National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger visited Tehran twice and
travelled to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, for secret talks with Chinese
emissaries. ''The Chinese message to us was clear,'' says Ardeshir Zahedi,
then Iran's foreign minister and a key player in forging the
Washington-Beijing dialogue. ''It was not in our interest to let the Soviet
Union become the arbiter of life and death of nations in the whole of the
Contrary to received wisdom, the initial American response to Chinese peace
offerings was far from enthusiastic. Kissinger knew little about China and
saw the world through the prism of European history in which Russia had been
a central player for at least a century. He was already putting the final
touches to his détente strategy, which envisaged a kind of US-Soviet
condominium on the modern world. Washington's initial reluctance to rise to,
let alone bite, China's bait was demonstrated by a series of demands designed
to dislocate the Communist regime's global ''revolutionary network.''
Washington wanted an end to China's support for ''liberation movements'' in
Africa, notably Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. Beijing obliged by pulling
the carpet out from under long-established allies. For its part, Iran wanted
China to end its support for the Communist-led insurgency in the Omani
province of Dhofar, allowing an Iranian expeditionary force to crush the
rebels. Again, China complied. The threat to oil routes in the Gulf, the Gulf
of Oman and the Arabian sea vanished.
Mao had labelled the United States ''The Paper Tiger,'' giving the Gang of
Four their favorite slogan. The Gang of Four, consisting of Mao's wife Jiang
Qin, the party intellectual Yao Wenyuan, and the apparatchiks Zhang Chunqiao
and Wang Hongwen, were bitterly opposed to any rapprochement with the US.
Even in September 1971 when we interviewed Jiang Qin and Yao Wenyuan, then
Mayor of Shanghai, they could not forget their anti-US slogans. However, it
was already clear that their faction had lost and that, having had the
control of the military and security apparatus wrested away from them, they
could no longer impact Chinese policymaking in a major way. The break came in
the plenum of the party's Central Committee in July 1972. There, the blame
for all that had gone wrong, including crimes committed in the name of
revolution, was put on Lin Biao, who had conveniently died—or been
liquidated—in an air crash. With the radical faction neutralized, the
Communist regime was now able to start behaving in a more rational manner.
That meant Beijing could now be regarded by the outside world as a normal,
even if unsavory, partner in international relations.
The official downfall of the Gang of Four came in 1976, a few months after
the death of their protector, Mao Zedong. By 1971 the tide had turned against
them. When Nixon went to China, the Chinese leadership had already decided on
a strategic change of course. Some leaders, like Deng Xiaoping and Zhongxuan,
the father of the current President Xi Jinping, needed a bit more time before
returning to decision-making centers. However, the road had been paved for
them by Prime Minister Chou Enlai and his close associates, including Hua
Kuo-feng and Li Hsien-nien. In interviews, all three insisted on China's
interests as a nation with no reference to its previous claims of ''exporting
revolution.'' Normalization with the US was made possible because the
reformist faction had won and was able to transform the People's Republic
from a cause into a nation-state.
No good road to Tehran
The situation in Iran is different. The Rafsanjani faction has always wanted
to use normalization with the US as a means of winning the power struggle
against radical rivals in Tehran. This was the message that Javad Zarif, the
new foreign minister, kept hammering into Secretary of State John Kerry's
ears in Geneva when the two went for a 20-minute walk in the fresh air, away
from hidden microphones.
Iran's situation today is different from that of China in 1972. The Islamic
Republic fears no invasion from any of its neighbors. Thanks to the US the
two most credible threats, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in
Afghanistan, have been removed.
Nor does Iran face an impending famine. In fact, Iran has suffered no famines
since 1865. Also, the current Iranian leadership, which includes US Green
Card holders and other individuals who have studied and lived in the US for
decades, have a much better understanding of how American power works than
the Chinese did in 1971-72. They know that Obama, a president at the end of
his tenure, is not the same as Nixon, then at the start of his second term
after a triumphal re-election. (Nixon, however, was to be kicked out before
ending his tenure as a result of the Watergate scandal.)
More importantly, perhaps, the US today, under an enigmatic leader like Obama,
whom some in Tehran believe may secretly sympathize with the Islamic
Revolution, is not the same as the US in 1970 at the height of its power and
''Why should the Islamic Republic give Obama anything when Obama describes
himself as Iran's shield against the US Congress?'' demands commentator
Nassir Amini. ''Kerry has met Zarif no fewer than 12 times. Far more than his
meetings with any of his counterparts among US allies. Tehran snaps its
fingers and the Americans run in excitement.''
China decided to change course and redefine itself because it hit several
hard hurdles on its way. Thanks to the weakness, not to say cowardice, of its
regional and extra-regional adversaries, the Islamic Republic has not hit
such hurdles, so far. As Ahmadinejad observed this ''train without a reverse
gear and a stop'' does not stop until it is stopped. Obama may yet realize
his dream of going to Tehran and putting a wreath on the tomb of Ayatollah
Khomeini, and even inspiring an opera as did Nixon's venture into Beijing.
However, wishful thinking is no substitute for a policy.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated
in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the
Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a
contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall
Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the
French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus.
Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20
languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's
latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and