Dickey: How Rational Is Iran?

Magical realism normally sells well in Iran. Gabriel García Márquez, whose 1967 novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude" popularized the literary genre around the world, is a special favorite of the Persian intelligentsia. Earlier this year an exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the novel's publication was held in Tehran, and 70 artists displayed works inspired by the book or its 80-year-old Colombian author. Lines from his work resonate with eerie truth for the children of the Islamic Revolution: "Normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war: nothing ever happened."

So it was something of a surprise last week when the puritanical mullahs banned García Márquez's latest novella, "Memories of My Melancholy Whores." This, even though the last word of the title had been changed in translation, rather delicately, to "Sweethearts." But Iranians quickly found ways to work around their government, as they've grown used to doing over the years. The first printing of more than 5,000 copies had sold out before the ban was even announced. Then some dedicated fan posted the entire Persian text of the book on the Web. Neither the people of Iran, nor their leaders, fit easily into the simple Western categories of tyranny and subjugation, or for that matter fact and fiction.

Precisely for that reason, the rest of us need to be concerned as the international debate about Iran's nuclear program continues to get nastier, more dangerous and potentially apocalyptic. Is it magic or realism that dominates the thinking in Tehran? Do the leaders there live in a rational world, or one of their own imagining? Or both? As a European diplomat privy to the nuclear negotiations told me privately this morning, "Nothing is what it is."

Certainly the Bush administration seems to get lost in the subtleties. One reason the threat of war hangs so heavy in the air is that Washington equates the certifiable reality of Iran's ongoing nuclear energy program with the White House's own perfervid imaginings about the mullahs secretly developing atomic weapons. Maybe that's what they're doing, maybe not. But nothing's been proved—or disproved—definitively.

The Iranian regime delights in the ambiguities. Its strategy appears to be to take its place among what International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei calls "virtual nuclear powers," like Japan, that are known to have the ability to build arsenals of atomic weapons, but choose not to—for now. Such a virtual reality may have magical powers of deterrence, but it already has provoked sanctions and could bring on a pre-emptive military strike by Israel, the United States, or both.

"It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants … in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay," García Márquez wrote of the characters in "Solitude." "It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages."

Is the game worth the risk? At least one brave Iranian suggests not. The literal-minded human-rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi told a press conference in Tehran on Monday that "using nuclear energy is every nation's right, but we have obvious rights other than nuclear energy—including security, peace and welfare." It would be worse than unwise, suggested Ebadi, to "insist so hard on one right so that we lose all other rights in one go." Delivering what an American might call "a reality check," Ebadi warned, "We can hear the evil sounds of war drums, however far away. We don't like it but there is probability of war." After 30 years of revolution and eight years of combat against Iraq, she said, Iranians are tired. They have too many memories of their melancholy wars.

"What we want," said Ebadi, "is for the two sides to respect international law. The United States cannot have the right to deal with Iran outside the framework of international law, and Iran cannot build a wall around itself and say, 'I have nothing to do with international law,' and pay no attention to Security Council resolutions."

But, of course, that is just what's being attempted on each side. If, as expected, the Iranians decline an offer by lead European negotiator Javier Solana to meet this week, or at the latest this weekend, there's little doubt that proposals for new sanctions will be put on the table at the United Nations Security Council. Yet whether those sanctions will actually be imposed is doubtful. Russia is equivocating; China is hanging back. Meanwhile, alternate plans for European sanctions outside the U.N. framework seem to be dying: the French support them, but Germany, Italy and Spain, among others, do not. "It's all very complicated and messy," says my friend the European diplomat, discreetly stating the obvious even in private.

An American journalist trying to parse the sinister reality from equally dangerous fantasy won't find much appreciation from readers searching for moral clarity. When I wrote last week that Tehran mostly flunked the latest report on compliance by the U.N.'s IAEA, I got an e-mail from Scott Ritter, the controversial former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion there and now warns against a repeat performance in Iran. Ritter seemed to think I'd been drinking the administration's Kool-Aid. "I can't help but feel your sourcing for this report was almost exclusively USG [U.S. government] or those leaning towards the USG position," Ritter wrote. "Given the experience of Iraq, do you really want to be giving the USG such blanket support of its position? The critical question is not of comportment, but rather does Iran pose a threat through some yet-to-be-discovered nuclear weapons program."

In fact, my primary sources for last week's essay were the IAEA report itself and conversations with diplomats in Vienna who firmly believe that a military attack on Iran would be disastrous. But, reluctant as they are to admit it, Iran's not helping them make their case, and there's less and less reason to think it will. When Saeed Jalili, Iran's new nuclear negotiator, was asked recently about the costs to his country created by the hardline posture he advocates, he said, "What costs? Today even Westerners say that Iran is more powerful than ever before."

So the confrontation builds, but mainly it continues. For those living it, like Shirin Ebadi, normality is precisely the most fearful part of this infinite war.