Russia's Vladimir Putin, seething over the collapse of the Soviet Empire, wants to become the hegemon of Eurasia — at least. Iran's Ali Khamenei, outraged by the decline of Islamic power, wants to become the hegemon of the Middle East — at a minimum.
President Obama wants to "end wars," "give diplomacy a chance," extend the hand of friendship to those who regard themselves as America's adversaries and enemies, and, most importantly, cast the United States as an equal member — and no more than that — of "the international community" in the 21st century, which he believes will not be nearly as bloody as were the 19th and 20th centuries.
I fear this is not going to end well.
Pull up almost any photo of the negotiators in Vienna last week and you'll see European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif grinning broadly. It makes me wonder: What's so amusing?
Lady Ashton and the other Western European diplomats sitting across the table from Iran's envoys have a critical mission: To persuade the Islamic republic's rulers to verifiably terminate their nuclear weapons program. If they fail, the nuclear non-proliferation effort is dead. The chances that nuclear weapons will spread and be used over the coming decades increases exponentially.
The United States and Europe are holding out a carrot: They are willing — indeed, eager — to terminate all economic sanctions on Iran and, what's more, to fully integrate the regime into the international economic system. It's a straightforward deal, but American officials, ensconced at Vienna's elegant Palais Coburg, have termed the talks a "Rubik's Cube." I suspect they've let process replace purpose.
The diplomats palavering with Iran represent the so-called P5 plus 1: the United States, Germany, France and Britain — but also China and Russia, whose commitment to preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear capability appears less than rock-solid.
And no one — diplomats, Western leaders or the major media — seemed terribly distressed by this: Last week, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations' "Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran," issued a report on the egregious persecution and discrimination of religious minorities and dissidents in that country. He noted that Iran has incarcerated at least 895 "prisoners of conscience" and "political prisoners," including 379 political activists, 292 religious "practitioners" — including dozens of Christians — 92 human rights defenders, 71 civic activists, 37 journalists and 24 student activists.
I'd guess Lady Ashton agrees with the American official who quickly absolved "moderate" Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of any blame. "These are indicators that President Rouhani has no influence over hard-liners, who remain fully in charge of the judiciary and security apparatus, government entities that are responsible for the most severe abuses against religious minorities," Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told FoxNews.com.
Those darned "hard-liners" also must be responsible for Iran continuing to top the list of terrorism sponsors. Al Jazeera — not exactly a conservative news outlet — this month aired a documentary making a convincing case that the bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 was commissioned by senior Iranian officials and sanctioned by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself.
Perhaps Lady Ashton thinks, "That was so long ago." It was just two weeks ago, though, that Israeli navy commandos interdicted the Klos-C, a ship carrying Iranian missiles intended for terrorists in Gaza. Perhaps Lady Ashton thinks, "Well, that's different." I can't think of any good reason why it would be. Or perhaps in private, she frowned at Foreign Minister Zarif and said something like, "Not nice, Javad."
It's hard to imagine how the Iranian foreign minister might have responded. He is not one to conceal his enthusiasm for terrorism. Earlier this year, you may recall, he laid a wreath on the grave of Imad Mugniyeh, mastermind of the mass murder of American Marines and diplomats in Beirut in 1983.
At the conclusion of last week's talks, a senior U.S. official summed up what had been achieved: "We understand each other's concerns." My rough translation from diplomatese into English: "We got nowhere."
Perhaps they'll do better when they get together again next month. Here's one reason not to bet on it: Mr. Obama last week imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its takeover of Crimea. These were minimal sanctions — the Russian stock market actually rose in relief — but the fact is we're now sanctioning Russia even as Vladimir Putin "partners" with us in negotiations that may lift much tougher sanctions from Iran, Russia's fellow neo-imperialist autocracy. Does anyone see a problem with this?
It gets worse — or rather, it's likely to: According to The New York Times, "Russia's delegate to the Iran talks, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, hinted in comments reported by the Interfax news agency Wednesday night that Russia might link the Ukraine and Iran issues as part of its own diplomatic leverage with the United States and European Union."
Mr. Ryabkov added: "We wouldn't like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington." Let me also translate this: He's saying: "That's a nice little dry-cleaning business you have there, Mr. Obama. It would be a shame if something should happen to it."
For some months, Mr. Putin has been vaguely threatening to conclude a sanctions-busting deal with Iran — billions of dollars in Iranian oil in exchange for missiles and additional nuclear facilities. Russia also has been toying with the idea of selling Iran its effective S-300 anti-aircraft batteries. That would leave the Israelis with a stark choice: Strike Iran before the system is operative or risk losing whatever capability they now have to deploy airpower to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.
I fear this may not end well. Did I mention that?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.