Is Iran Too Evil to Talk to?

As the arguments against making a deal with Iran fall away, opponents have doubled down on evil. Iran is just too evil to talk to.

In the hands of a skilled debater, it is a powerful, emotional point. I heard it first hand when I sat down on The Ed Show to discuss with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach the negotiations to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.

It was a heated discussion, and Rabbi Shmuley was very good. He argued that Iran "hangs gays in public squares, stones women to death, sponsors terrorism and kills American soldiers throughout the world."

Shmuley is absolutely right.

Iran is guilty of what he accuses them of and then some. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on Iran, recently presented a report on the human rights situation in Iran to the UN Human Rights Council. His findings were damning.

"Iran continues to execute more individuals per capita than any country in the world," Shaheed said. In just the past year they have carried out more than 1,000. This number is particularly troubling given that "a majority of all executions in the country are for drug-related offenses or other crimes, including adultery, sodomy, and 'vaguely worded national security offenses' that do not meet international standards for when the death penalty is permissible."

Shmuley is just one of many, including Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) and columnist Charles Krauthammer, who now cite Iran's record as evidence that they simply cannot be trusted. We cannot legitimize this government. We cannot possible sign any agreement with them. We must walk away from the negotiating table.

That's where they go very wrong.

Iran's deplorable record is not a reason to walk away. It is the very reason we must hammer out an iron-clad agreement to ensure Iran cannot get its hands on a nuclear bomb.

The Fantasy of Zero

What are the alternatives to a negotiated agreement? Claims that we should let the talks collapse and hold out for a better deal are pure fantasy. If we collapse the talks China, Russia and our own allies would walk away from us. Sanctions will unravel, not strengthen. The risk of war will increase. And war with Iran would make the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan look like warm-up acts.

There once was the possibility of dismantling Iran's program completely. But it disappeared years ago during the Bush administration when Iran only had a few hundred centrifuges. Iran offered to sit down with the U.S., but we wouldn't talk. The administration followed the neoconservative approach then championed by Vice President Dick Cheney: "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it."

The negotiations died before they ever got started.

Over the last decade, Iran has invested billions of dollars and vast amounts of political capital in its nuclear program. They now have 22,000 centrifuges. There is not a political leader in Iran who could agree to cut this to zero. Or a few hundred. Getting them down to a few thousand would be a huge accomplishment.

But this is precisely what negotiators are reportedly trying to achieve -- slashing Iran's inventory of machines by almost 75 percent, from 22,000 to about 6,000.

Couple this with dramatic reductions in the amount of uranium gas that Iran feeds into the centrifuges, caps on the quality of the centrifuges and other restraints and we could tie Iran's nuclear hands. We could ensure that Iran could not make enough high-enriched uranium for even one bomb for at least a year. That would be 6 times longer than it would take them today.

Speaking to the Devil

And we don't want to do this why? Because they are evil?

We negotiate with evil governments all the time. China, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and Burma immediately come to mind. Some would add Saudi Arabia, a government that stones women, publicly beheads people and funds some of the most radical Islamic groups in the world. And, of course, there are the dozens of brutal juntas that ran Central and South American governments for decades.

If Nixon had adhered to Cheney's line of thinking he would never have normalized relations with China, a country with an atrocious history of human rights abuses. When Mao and Nixon famously toasted in Beijing in 1972, the Chairman had already carried out a brutal Cultural Revolution and his policies had caused famines that killed millions. Twenty years earlier, his troops had killed thousands of American soldiers in the Korean War.

But talking with Mao opened the door to policies that brought increased Western influence into China, moderated some of its policies, allowed cooperation on myriad global issues (most recently on climate change) and fueled trillions of dollars in trade. Is China a democracy? No. But there has been an immense improvements in human rights and the living standards of hundreds of millions of Chinese over the last 45 years.

One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century was our ability to work with the Soviet Union, a country that Reagan called an "evil empire," to avoid nuclear annihilation. That moniker was well deserved. Stalin's purges murdered millions of Russians. Political opponents were rounded up, given show trials and executed. Most, of course, had no trial. They were sent to gulags where they were worked death or simply disappeared. His successors supported scores of groups fighting against America and our allies.

Cooperation with the Soviets not only prevented a nuclear war, it also led to a series of security, economic and political agreements that helped stabilize the world and led to the gradual demise of the Soviet empire.

Negotiating with corrupt, brutal and often despicable governments is necessary to prevent even greater evils. This time, we are doing it to make sure that a dangerous regime does not get the bomb.

And that would add a great deal of good to the world.