Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Reagan and the Iran Talks

by Elliott Abrams
June 30, 2014


In his address to the UN General Assembly in September, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke a few words about the relationship between peace and freedom.

Here is what he said:

Freedom in Nicaragua or Angola or Afghanistan or Cambodia or Eastern Europe or South Africa or anyplace else on the globe is not just an internal matter. Some time ago the Czech dissident writer Vaclav Havel warned the world that “respect for human rights is the fundamental condition and the sole genuine guarantee of true peace.” And Andrei Sakharov in his Nobel lecture said: “I am convinced that international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel and choose the country in which one wishes to live.” Freedom serves peace; the quest for peace must serve the cause of freedom. Patient diplomacy can contribute to a world in which both can flourish.

This is a message worth keeping in mind as our negotiators, and those of other “P5+1” nations, meet with Iranian officials to seek a nuclear agreement before the July 20 deadline. The road to peace does not lie through weak agreements with brutal dictatorships. In the end, peace and reconciliation between Iran and the United States are certainly possible, indeed likely–but not between the Islamic Republic and the United States. “The quest for peace must serve the cause of freedom,” Reagan rightly said, and any agreement that strengthens the Iranian regime–that enhances its reputation, that gives it greater leverage in the Middle East, or that strengthens its strangle-hold on the Iranian people–serves neither the cause of freedom nor that of peace.

I’ve heard Obama administration officials claim they were following a Reagan-like policy toward Iran: negotiating with a hostile power just as he negotiated with the Soviet Union. But Reagan didn’t just negotiate; he negotiated and he denounced. He called the USSR an “evil empire” that would end up on the “ash heap of history.” His moral clarity was powerful–powerful enough, Natan Sharansky later wrote, to reach into the Gulag. Here’s how Sharansky saw it:

It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. There was a long list of all the Western leaders who had lined up to condemn the evil Reagan for daring to call the great Soviet Union an evil empire right next to the front-page story about this dangerous, terrible man who wanted to take the world back to the dark days of the Cold War. This was the moment. It was the brightest, most glorious day. Finally a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.

It was one of the most important, freedom-affirming declarations, and we all instantly knew it. For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now. This was the end of Lenin’s “Great October Bolshevik Revolution” and the beginning of a new revolution, a freedom revolution–Reagan’s Revolution.

We were all in and out of punishment cells so often–me more than most–that we developed our own tapping language to communicate with each other between the walls. A secret code. We had to develop new communication methods to pass on this great, impossible news.

There has been no such moment in the Obama administration, which has been chasing the dream of a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. This is a morally ambiguous policy at best, but it is also impractical and counter-productive. This is true both in Congress, where many critics (in both parties) fear a weak Obama policy toward Iran, one searching desperately for an agreement that might be profferred as a great foreign policy achievement, and in the region, where our Gulf Arab allies and Israel all fear a nuclear deal that leads to greatly reduced American resistance to Iranian aggression, subversion, and support for terrorism. Stronger and clearer rhetoric about the crimes of the Islamic Republic would reassure members of Congress and U.S. allies in the region–and would make a nuclear deal more likely to pass muster on Capitol Hill. Ironically it would also make it more likely that a decent deal, if one could be negotiated, would be accepted by the Ayatollah Khamenei, for whom rapprochement with the “Great Satan” is a nightmare, not an objective. Put another way, a tougher American stance toward the Islamic Republic will not lead Khamenei to back away from a nuclear deal; he seeks no close or cooperative relationship.

Nothing we do with respect to Iran should deepen the regime’s hold, and we should be trying in any practical way we have–improving internet access for Iranians, for example, and making very clear in our rhetoric that we understand the brutal nature of the regime’s repression–to side with the people of Iran against their oppressors. To repeat what Reagan said for yet another time, “the quest for peace must serve the cause of freedom.”

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by EMT

    Being familiar with Iran, I know that being governed by a king or by a religious leader who was not elected by the people, does not change the character of a dictatorship. They are very intelligent, cunning and use ruse.

    Among other things, this is a government that creates proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. We know well that Iran oppressed its people and tried to dominate other countries in order to enlarge its influence. In my view Obama is doing a big mistake and he may realize it later on that he cannot count on the words of the Iranian leaders. He is wasting his time and letting the Iranians take advantage of his naiveté.

    This negotiation strengthens Iran and weaken the United States. Sooner or later the US will have to confront Iran.

  • Posted by Isaac

    Type your comment in here…
    Just stop already, and grow up. In truth your position is the exact same as Obama’s with respect to the essential misunderstanding: you both believe the myth of Islamic moderation. While it’s probably true that Muslims are and can be moderate individually this has no political relevance.

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