In Libya, a Lesson for Iran
Moammar Gaddafi leaned across the couch and surprised me with the question he posed, squinting as he searched my face for reaction: "Why do you drink poison?"
I could guess where the Libyan dictator was headed but asked him to explain. During a news conference, we had just engaged in a verbal confrontation over terrorism, and he had asked to see me alone -- perhaps, I thought, to articulate his position better, or just to arrest me. "Alcohol," he said through an interpreter. "You people in the West poison yourself with alcohol. You are fools."
That 1973 interview in Tripoli and an even more venomous conversation with Gaddafi 14 years later accustomed me never to be surprised by anything he does. And no one -- beginning with the Scottish and British officials trying to glide away from a truly reprehensible act -- should have been surprised by the hero's welcome Gaddafi gave to Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
The hoopla in Tripoli for Megrahi, released from a Scottish jail for "humanitarian reasons," was not only in Gaddafi's nature. It was in his interest.
Gaddafi needed to lionize Megrahi to continue to assert that his regime had no connection to the Lockerbie tragedy -- despite evidence to the contrary. Megrahi had to be visibly rewarded for enduring the unjust persecution claimed in Gaddafi's version. No surprise, no afterthought, the welcome was an essential goal that Gaddafi never let out of his sight.
U.S. officials have to deal not only with the odious aftermath of Megrahi's release but also with Gaddafi's plan to visit New York next month to address the United Nations. They should remember that Gaddafi is crazy, but crazy like a monomaniacal fox.
It has alas become too late to obtain justice for the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Letting Gaddafi off the hook was an implicit feature of the 2003 plea bargain that George W. Bush and Tony Blair struck with the Libyan leader to get Tripoli to end its nuclear and chemical weapons programs and help roll up terrorist networks it had previously supported.
But it is not too late to apply lessons from that plea bargaining to President Obama's determination to reach a somewhat similar arrangement with Iran. Like Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his followers have one goal they can never abandon, even if it must remain swaddled in silence and in their promises to change in other ways.
Iranians live in a culture of negotiation, much as Americans venerate entrepreneurship or the French value style and elegance. The act of negotiating, for Iranians, is a high art and the ultimate framework for all human interaction. Arriving at a quick, clear outcome based on compromise is amateurish and rude, if not unpatriotic.
I was reminded of this recently by Abbas Kiarostami's masterfully minimalist film "Taste of Cherry," now available on DVD. Like the work of many serious moviemakers, Kiarostami's film succeeds because it places national character at its center. The plot:
A man tries to persuade strangers to help him commit suicide (for undisclosed reasons) in return for money. The movie becomes a long, continuous negotiation among many players, in which the pros and cons of every conceivable action are debated, weighed and reformulated. And in the end, no one is clear exactly what has happened.
Even the power struggle going on in Iran has taken on many traits of a negotiation between the rulers and the dissidents. Fraudulent elections, protests, Stalinist show trials and staggering human rights abuses have given rise to a national dialogue about the Islamic republic's outdated institutions -- particularly the office of Supreme Guide occupied by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
So Iranians will be comfortable with the elaborate interlocking negotiations that will have to involve the United States, Israel, Russia, the European powers and China to bring a halt to Tehran's current nuclear and missile programs. But in the end, whatever the regime seems to have promised, it will have to be able to communicate to its people that Iran has not given up the instrument that guarantees a continuing place at the top negotiating table -- the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
That is Tehran's equivalent of Megrahi's welcome, whatever the rest of the plea bargain says. Such a deal may be worth it for Obama, and for the United States, on balance. But he, and we, should be under no illusion about the result Tehran has in mind.