Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Plenty of conservatives will be outraged to hear that the Washington National Cathedral has invited former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to speak on Sept. 7 following a U.N. conference in New York, and even more outraged that the Bush administration plans to let it happen. We’re not among them. This is not a Madeleine Albright-to-Pyongyang moment, nor is it some capitulation to the enemy. It is informal diplomacy at minor cost amid deadlock in official channels. It can’t hurt, and it might help.

Mr. Khatami is no reformer and no “moderate”; there should be no pretense of good faith. He will probably breathe fire on Sept. 7. But that doesn’t mean the visit is a bad idea. We don’t think a Nixon-to-China template fits the age of Islamofascism, but the limited precedent of “ping-pong diplomacy” is worth considering. At a time of extreme tension, limited cultural exchange can open windows that are otherwise closed. This may be one of those moments.

Careful cost-benefit analysis is key for American actions regarding Iran right now. There is only one possible cost here and that is the propaganda value to Iran. But this is limited at best. Few minds will be changed; the buzz will be limited to the echo chambers of the official Iranian organs. Perception could well favor the United States. Average Iranians — who are more favorably disposed to America than might be assumed, and who view us more favorably than much of the rest of the Muslim world — may interpret this as a magnanimous gesture, which it is.

This, of course, presumes that security is tight and the event passes without incident.

So conservatives can laugh at the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the cathedral, for crowing about Mr. Khatami’s contribution to the “dialogue between civilizations and cultures”; they can laugh at the naivete of regaling a former head of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism as though he were a Nobel laureate; and they can lampoon the cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation as just another spoke on the wheel of loony leftism, which it may well be. But we’ll still be left with the Iranian problem, and no better for the cathartic laughter.

Under current circumstances, there are few reasons to block this speech. The stakes of our conflict with Iran are extremely high, in light of which a small-potatoes visit by Mr. Khatami will be either irrelevant or potentially useful.

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