On Thursday, Jews celebrated Yom Kippur. A key component of this holiest of days is teshuva - repentance and the possibility of change. Our parents taught us that to wipe the slate clean we must detail our own misdeeds and dialogue face to face with those with whom we’ve been in conflict.
There are diplomats and religious leaders who believe that unconditional conversation is also the way to secure peaceful relations with Iran. The issue of how to engage the soon-to-be-nuclear Tehran is also a defining fault line between the competing foreign-policy visions of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.
Some analysis of recent events and an anniversary of a pivotal moment in history can help clarify the fine line between dialogue and appeasement. By any yardstick, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s trip to New York last month was a triumph for Ayatollah Khamenei and a debacle for the cause of human rights in Iran. At the rostrum of the U.N. General Assembly, President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann gave Mr. Ahmadinejad a public embrace usually reserved for a Nobel Prize laureate, not for the president of a country under heavy U.N.-led sanctions. His speech also generated warm applause from scores of ambassadors in the hall. But did anyone actually read his lips?
Mr. Ahmadinejad might as well have been reading from the genocidal “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It was the Jew-hater’s valedictory address. Having already threatened to wipe Israel off the map, Mr. Ahmadinejad graduated to the next level of hatemongering. Deploying rhetoric not heard in the international arena since the days of Hitler and using imagery usually reserved for the rants of the KKK and neo-Nazis, he came after all Jews. In the midst of the unprecedented global economic meltdown, Mr. Ahmadinejad pointed to a network of “Zionists” and their lackeys as scheming, “materialistic” villains responsible for the world’s ills.
The mullahs must have taken smug satisfaction that their frontman paid no price for his tirade. No one stormed out of the General Assembly. American interviewers let him evade the tough questions, surrendering to his clever retorts by presenting the warm, human side of the person who recently pushed for the death penalty for Muslim converts to Christianity. And respected religious leaders, including the representatives of 550 million Protestants from the World Council of Churches, still lined up for a gala evening with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Hailed by the Mennonite and Quaker organizers as “the dialogue dinner,” the only dialogue available to the distinguished leaders was with the waiters. Despite his earlier promises, Mr. Ahmadinejad took no questions. Instead he spoke, feasted on the propaganda bonanza, and departed.
The net result was not dialogue, but appeasement. Ironically, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Munich Conference in September 1938. Returning from the summit with Hitler, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told a relieved British people that he had bought “peace in our time.” Within two months, however, democratic Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by the Third Reich and Nazi Germany launched its war against the Jews through the terror of Kristallnacht. A year later, it would plunge the world into the abyss of World War II.
On the eve of Munich, war-weary Europeans viewed appeasement as a positive goal, not a tragic failure. Back then, no one could imagine Auschwitz or modern genocide. Hitler’s rhetoric could be dismissed as just that. Seven decades ago, a Europe still recoiling from the horrific casualties wrought by World War I could be excused for self-delusion.
But in the digital age there are no excuses. Tehran’s rush to put a nuclear payload on missiles aimed at Israel, Europe and beyond is no pipe dream. Its repression of minorities threatens loyal and peaceful Christians and Baha’i. And two days after Mr. Ahmadinejad returned from New York, his minister of culture furthered Iran’s state-sponsored hate by helping to launch a new book mocking the victims of the Holocaust.
So, wither dialogue? The Yom Kippur model can only work when the other party wants to listen and is willing to offer something toward a common goal. The coddling by diplomats and religious elites plays right into the hands of the mullahs’ fanatical ambitions, and vapid photo-ops only provide cover for evil men on a mission.
Our next president can find a working model by studying the George Shultz Cold War playbook. His State Department unabashedly placed human rights front and center in all dealings with the Soviets. While there were plenty of diplomatic contacts and cultural exchanges, progress on bilateral relations was always keyed to human rights. And those high-profile summits between top leaders? They were few and far between, carefully negotiated. Even when crucial nuclear issues were on the table, so were America’s demands for progress for dissidents struggling to leave or change Russia.
It’s clear we can’t leave negotiations with Iran to media icons or to people so desperate to see good that they are blind to evil. Job one for our next president is to signal pro-American young Iranians they are not forgotten and oppressed minorities they are not forsaken. Any potential meeting with Tehran’s evil theocrats must be linked to real and verifiable policy changes on the ground. Anything less could lead America down the road to appeasement or war.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.