"The fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn't preclude you from being interested in survival,” President Obama said last month in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. “The fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn't mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”
The question of whether Iran, run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his ayatollahs, is a rational state goes to the very heart of the debate over its nuclear program and the negotiations, now nearing a June 30 deadline, to curb it.
Simply put: Those in the “rational” camp see a regime that wants to remain in power and achieve regional hegemony and will therefore cooperate, rather than languish under international sanctions that threaten to deny it both. The other side cannot accept that religious fanatics who deny the Holocaust, blame all evil on the Jews and pledge to annihilate the 6 million of them in Israel can be trusted with a nuclear program capable of producing the world's most destructive weapon in a single year.
The rational/irrational dispute was ever-present in the intimate discussions between the United States and Israel on the Iranian nuclear issue during my term as Israel's ambassador to Washington, from 2009 to the end of 2013. I took part in those talks and was impressed by their candor. Experts assessed the progress in Iran's program: the growing number of centrifuges in its expanding underground facilities, the rising stockpile of enriched uranium that could be used in not one but several bombs, and the time that would be required for Iran to “break out” or “sneak out” from international inspectors and become a nuclear power.
Both nations' technical estimates on Iran largely dovetailed. Where the two sides differed was over the nature of the Islamic Republic. The Americans tended to see Iranian leaders as logical actors who understood that the world would never allow them to attain nuclear weapons and would penalize them mercilessly — even militarily — for any attempt to try.
By contrast, most Israelis viewed the ayatollahs as radical jihadists who claimed they took instructions from the Shiite “Hidden Imam,” tortured homosexuals and executed women accused of adultery, and strove to commit genocide against Jews. Israelis could not rule out the possibility that the Iranians would be willing to sacrifice half of their people as martyrs in a war intended to “wipe Israel off the map.”
As famed Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis once observed, “Mutually assured destruction” for the Iranian regime “is not a deterrent — it's an inducement.”
The gap between the American and Israeli assessment of Iranian sanity only widened over the years. Obama insisted that the ayatollahs analyzed the nuclear issue on a cost-benefit basis. “They have their worldview and they see their interests. They're not North Korea,” he told Goldberg in a December interview.
Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw Tehran's rulers as medieval fanatics determined to exterminate the Jews and achieve world domination. “You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs,” he warned Goldberg in a separate Atlantic interview in March. A nuclear-armed Iran, Netanyahu has frequently declared, is far worse than North Korea.
Which of them is right? Here's the problem with Obama's point of view: If indeed they are rational, Iranian leaders have had every reason to conclude that the president desperately wants a nuclear deal, and that their long-term cooperation is not really necessary.
Although the White House has repeatedly claimed that “the window for diplomacy will not remain open forever,” in fact it has never come close to shutting. Even now, without a deal in place, it seems obvious that the sanctions will start to unravel.
Consequently, the ayatollahs sensibly have determined that, by dragging out the negotiations, they can wrest further concessions from the United States. They can keep more centrifuges, more facilities and a larger uranium stockpile.
Why, logically, would Iran believe Obama's claim that “all options were on the table”? On the contrary, Iran has remained the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism — brazenly threatening America's allies in the Middle East, and in 2011 even allegedly planning a major terrorist attack in Washington against the Saudi ambassador — without facing military or even diplomatic retribution from the United States.
The Iranians have taken note of how the White House helped overthrow Libya's Moammar Kadafi after he gave up his nuclear program but shied away from North Korea when it tested more weapons. Iran can see how Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, by ceding part of his chemical arsenal, went from being America's problem to America's solution, and then to barrel-bombing his countrymen with impunity. Iranian rulers understood they could count on obtaining their nuclear program's objectives of regime survival and regional supremacy without dismantling a centrifuge.
Obama's argument not only fails logic's test but also history's. Anti-Semitism, the president further explained to Goldberg in May, “doesn't preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat [or] being strategic about how you stay in power.” Except, in one infamous example, it did. The Nazis pursued insane ends. Even during the last days of World War II, as the Allied armies liberated Europe, they diverted precious military resources to massacring Jews.
Obama would never say that anti-black racists are rational. And he would certainly not trust them with the means — however monitored — to reach their racist goals. That was the message Israeli officials and I conveyed in our discreet talks with the administration. The response was not, to our mind, reasonable.
Michael Oren, a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is the author of "Ally: My Journal Across the American-Israeli Divide," to be published June 23.