By Natan Sharansky
April 17, 2015
Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist
and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chairman of the Jewish
Agency for Israel.
On a number of
occasions during the
negotiations over Iranís
nuclear program, the Israeli government has appealed to the United States
and its allies to demand a change in Tehranís aggressive behavior. If Iran
wishes to be treated as a normal state, Israel has said, then it should start
acting like one. Unfortunately, these appeals have been summarily dismissed. The
administration apparently believes that only after a nuclear agreement is
signed can the free world expect Iran to stop its attempts at regional
domination, improve its human rights record and, in general, behave like the
civilized state it hopes the world will recognize it to be.
As a former Soviet dissident, I cannot help
but compare this approach to that of the United States during its decades-long
negotiations with the Soviet Union, which at the time was a global superpower
and a existential threat to the free world. The differences are striking and
For starters, consider that the Soviet regime
felt obliged to make its first ideological concession simply to enter into
negotiations with the United States about economic cooperation. At the end of
the 1950s, Moscow abandoned its doctrine of fomenting a worldwide communist
revolution and adopted in its place a credo of peaceful coexistence between
communism and capitalism. The Soviet leadership paid a high price for this
concession, both internally ó in the form of millions of citizens, like me,
who had been obliged to study Marxism and Leninism as the truth and now found
their partial abandonment confusing ó and internationally, in their relations
with the Chinese and other dogmatic communists who viewed the change as a
betrayal. Nevertheless, the Soviet government understood that it had no other
way to get what it needed from the United States.
Imagine what would have happened if instead,
after completing a round of negotiations over disarmament, the Soviet Union had
declared that its right to expand communism across the continent was not up for
discussion. This would have spelled the end of the talks. Yet today, Iran feels
no need to tone down its rhetoric calling for the death of America and wiping
Israel off the map.
Of course, changes in rhetoric did not change
the Soviet Unionís policy, which included sending missiles to Cuba, tanks to
Prague and armies to Afghanistan. But each time, such aggression caused a
serious crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington, influencing the
atmosphere and results of negotiations between them. So, for example, when the
Soviets invaded Afghanistan shortly after the SALT II agreement had been signed,
the United States quickly abandoned the deal and accompanying discussions.
Today, by contrast, apparently no amount of
belligerence on Iranís part can convince the free world that Tehran has
disqualified itself from the negotiations or the benefits being offered therein.
Over the past month alone, as nuclear discussions continued apace, we watched
Iranís proxy terror group, Hezbollah, transform into a full-blown army on
Israelís northern border, and we saw Tehran continue to impose its rule on
other countries, adding Yemen to the list of those under its control.
Then there is the question of human rights.
When American negotiations with the Soviets reached the issue of trade, and in
particular the lifting of sanctions and the conferring of most-favored-nation
status on the Soviet Union, the Senate, led by Democrat Henry
Jackson, insisted on linking economic normalization to Moscowís allowing
freedom of emigration. By the next year, when the Helsinki agreement was signed,
the White House had joined Congress in making the Sovietsí treatment of
dissidents a central issue in nearly every negotiation.
Iranís dismal human rights record, by
contrast, has gone entirely unmentioned in the recent negotiations. Sadly,
Americaís reticence is familiar: In 2009, in response to the democratic
uprisings that mobilized so many Iranian citizens, President Obama declared
that engaging the theocratic regime would take priority over changing it.
Reality is complicated, and the use of
historical analogies is always somewhat limited. But even this superficial
comparison shows that what the United States saw fit to demand back then from
the most powerful and dangerous competitor it had ever known is now considered
beyond the pale in its dealings with Iran.
Why the dramatic shift? One could suggest a
simple answer: Today there is something the United States wants badly from Iran,
leaving Washington and its allies with little bargaining power to demand
additional concessions. Yet in fact Iran has at least as many reasons to hope
for a deal. For Tehran, the lifting of sanctions could spell the difference
between bankruptcy and becoming a regional economic superpower, and in slowing
down its arms race it could avoid a military attack.
I am afraid that the real reason for the U.S.
stance is not its assessment, however incorrect, of the two sidesí respective
interests but rather a tragic loss of moral self-confidence. While negotiating
with the Soviet Union, U.S. administrations of all stripes felt certain of the
moral superiority of their political system over the Soviet one. They felt they
were speaking in the name of their people and the free world as a whole, while
the leaders of the Soviet regime could speak for no one but themselves and the
declining number of true believers still loyal to their ideology.
But in todayís postmodern world, when
asserting the superiority of liberal democracy over other regimes seems like the
quaint relic of a colonialist past, even the United States appears to have lost
the courage of its convictions.
We have yet to see the full consequences of
this moral diffidence, but one thing is clear: The loss of Americaís
self-assured global leadership threatens not only the United States and Israel
but also the people of Iran and a growing number of others living under
Tehranís increasingly emboldened rule. Although the hour is growing late,
there is still time to change course ó before the effects grow more