There's something uncomfortably familiar in the spectacle of the West and its shakier friends, such as Russia, negotiating with Iran. We have been here before, and not in a seminar on international relations. We're watching a narrative that scriptwriters have used for generations, a story we've lived through vicariously in movies and TV. It usually concerns a police officer dealing with a crazy and dangerous character, someone who has hostages to kill or a bomb to explode.
That's the situation that keeps recurring, for instance, on Flashpoint, the series about a Toronto SWAT team, in which someone always threatens violence, often accompanied by suicide, and a wise cop must talk him out of it. It's an intense game played for high stakes, with sanity on one side and paranoid rage on the other. Because it's fiction we know everything can usually be resolved and catastrophe averted.
The conflict with Iran, unfortunately, carries no such guarantees. We can only watch as the usual psychodrama follows its course. The West's politicians try to make reasonable noises, pretending to take the Iranians seriously, as if they aren't aware they're dealing with madmen.
Extreme diplomacy involves a pretense of sincerity. "Look, let's just talk," says the police negotiator -- or the politician.
With Iran, fear lies behind every move the West makes. It's necessary to guess how far Iran will go. How crazy are they? Everyone knows, after all, what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs manipulating him consider a reasonable course of action when their status, their power and their pride are threatened. In punishing Iranians who protested peacefully against a corrupt election in June, they arrested 500 of their fellow citizens. They seem to believe no cruelty is too much for Iranian protesters, now branded as worthless traitors though some of them are former officials in the Iranian government.
We also know what they think of the West. They believe that all the troubles of Iran can be blamed on the foreign devils -- the Americans, the Israelis, the British and everyone connected to them. The people controlling Iran live under a permanent cloud of paranoia. They do all they can, through TV and the press, to persuade their fellow citizens to share their affliction.
Of course they know the West is lying when it treats them respectfully, just as the West knows Iran will lie at every turn in the negotiations.
As in a hostage drama, each side seeks to set the agenda and each side wants the other to shoulder in advance the blame for whatever goes wrong. This week, for instance, the UN Secretary General, Ban Kimoon, could be heard demanding that Tehran prove to the world that it has no plans for developing nuclear weapons. If it doesn't do so soon, the West will put in place crippling sanctions. But both sides know that the sanctions could fail if the Chinese see a fresh chance to expand their power by helping Iran. And both sides also know that the Russian commitment to sanctions may be less than firm.
Ahmadinejad replies with demands of his own and gives a bizarre imitation of reasonable statesmanship. He's like the man in the TV drama who demands to know what the cop will do for him. The negotiations, Ahmadinejad says, provide an opportunity and a test of those nations making demands on Iran. Tehran expects a changed approach. The West and the Security Council must now prove they can "correct their way of dealing with nations." He wants to know whether "some governments are determined to follow up the slogan of change." He's talking about Barack Obama's expressed determination to find a new approach to Iran.
Obama should be good at this kind of thing because he does sincerity so well; sometimes what would appear as pussy-footing in another politician takes on the appearance of carefully pondered wisdom when he does it.
But Iran has not shown any reciprocal appreciation for his attempts at mock friendship. Now even Obama has tired, after nine months, of his own hopeful overtures. "Iran is on notice," he said the other day, "that they are going to have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice." Even as the force of argument shifts from one side to the other, we have to feel a degree of sympathy for anyone in Obama's position. For a democratic leader obliged to carry his constituents with him, it can never be easy to negotiate with the insane.