Despair is a sin. To give into one's fears, to abandon hope, deliberately and voluntarily, it is an exercise of the intellect that salvation is impossible, despite having the resources to counter one's fears of failure. It is the abandonment of hope because it is too hard to dare to continue to hope in the face of the dangers that one faces.
Despair is from the Latin desperare, to be hopeless.
Now, there is despair and there is despair. Despair directly - I despair that we will persevere - and despair indirectly: I despair that John Kerry will ever understand how fundamentally mistaken he is.
The first is a sin: the second is a simple observation.
In today's FT, Senator John Kerry, no longer the junior Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, opines that since Teheran wants to talk about human rights and democracy, they must mean business:
In agreeing to talks, Iran has expressed an unexpected interest in discussing democracy and human rights. This is a conversation America should welcome, and an opportunity to demonstrate to the Iranian people that progress on the nuclear issue will not come at their expense.
Let me tell you of an episode of my youth. I was working on my German back in 1980 in Freiburg when I met a young Iranian - he insisted on being called Persian - who was also studying German in the same DaF course (DaF=Deutsch als Fremdsprache, German as a Foreign language, the German equivalent of TOEFL and a prerequisite, back then, of studying in Germany). This was, of course, right after the fall of the Shah, and he came from a royalist family that had fled Teheran and had lost a significant amount of land and money in the revolution. He was wooing one of our classmates, a rather plain American girl who was more than slightly charmed by his attention. When he passed his DaF, he celebrated by asking her to marry him, which to our surprise she did.
We didn't have that close of a friendship, though, and I was more than slightly preoccupied with Kant, Husserl and Heidegger at the time. We saw each other occasionally and would engage in the usual grad-student discussions of what we were doing philosophically. He was enamored of Kant and the coolness, the analytical quality of Kant's philosophy, and understood the importance of hermeneutical work in getting into text analysis. It's a tool.
Fast-forward, now, three or four years later. I hadn't seen him around much and then found, to my surprise, that he had bought one of the local bookstores. a smaller and fairly unsuccessful one, but nonetheless quite an achievement for us starving philosophy students. He had acquired quite a beard, and we started talking. I found that he had divorced his wife - who I found later to have fled Germany back to the US scared half to death of her husband - and had been able to return to Iran, or as he called it, Persia.
I asked him how that had happened, since his family had been royalists. Turned out that one of his cousins was involved with the revolution and ended up in the Finance ministry, and had cleared the family name, returning to them their land and at least some of their monies. Hence he could afford to buy the bookstore.
He had, however, stopped studying. Remembering how much he enjoyed it - I was fairly serious about philosophy at the time, but he was even more so - I was surprised to learn that he was, in his own words, now "a simple merchant".
Then he sprung his rhetorical trap: he asked me, given that he knew I was a clever fellow, how I could not be a believer? How could I not submit to Islam? It was, after all, the only sensible thing to do, given that it was the Word Of God.
I agreed to disagree: he agreed that since I was a non-believer and unwilling to submit, that there was no basis for any further discussion; he said that until I saw the errors of my ways and submit to Allah, that I was not alive to him, that nothing I said or did would have any meaning to him, that my life was forfeit because I did not submit. My jaw dropped, he turned and walked away, and I never saw him again.
That was, to put it mildly, chilling: it was the first time I had personally met such monumental intolerance and condemnation of who I was because I did not submit. This is real religious intolerance: not the "don't marry my daughter, you're Jewish/Catholic/Baptist" intolerance, but rather condemning me because I did not submit, that my refusal to do so meant that I was no longer civilized, but rather at best a failure in his eyes, condemned because of my own failure to believe what must be so.
Getting back to John Kerry: the invitation to discuss democracy and human rights is not an invitation to actually discuss these. Rather, it is an invitation to convert to what the Islamists in Teheran believe is democracy and human rights.
What matters to Kerry and most of the West is simply irrelevant to the Islamists in Teheran:
Sanctions? Proof of the hate of the West towards Iran and the Iranian people.
Walkout of UN delegates during Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad's speech? Proof of the stupidity of the West and the stupidity of supporting Israel.
Obsession with human rights, especially gay rights and women's rights? Proof of the utter evil of the West, since these things are clearly laid out in the Koran and there is no questioning God's authority in such matters.
If we send John Kerry to Teheran to talk to the Islamacists in charge, it will not merely be an enormous waste of time if the West thinks this will change the message of the Mullahs. It will not.
Reading what Kerry writes and obviously believes, coupled with the unwillingness of the West to actually treat Iran as a pariah state, could leave one in a state of despair.
But there is no reason to despair. Not if you understand that the point is rapidly approaching that will see a lose-lose situation: either Iran develops nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, or the West will bomb Iran's facilities to destroy them.
Talking with Teheran is like talking to a brick wall. The failure of US policy since Carter to engage the Iranians should not be a surprise: the Iranians, or more exactly the Islamicists in Iran, have no intention of talking to us except to see if we are willing to submit to the Will of Allah.
Pretending that this is in any way different is foolishness at its finest. But then again, John Kerry is a fool.
There is no reason to despair here: the way things are going, war will happen. It becomes a choice, then, of stopping Teheran from developing nuclear weapons - and can anyone really think that anything the West can do, short of an attack, will stop the Islamicists in Iran from achieving their goal? - and becoming therefore the default local superpower in the region, with all the ugliness of intimidation of its neighbors that it so desires, or allowing Teheran to develop them, destroying the credibility of the UN and the credibility of US threats.
To destroy the Iranian ability to develop nuclear weapons means a war that first destroys the means of production, but must also aim at toppling the Islamicists in Iran and changing that society so that such a threat may never arise again.
Accepting the Iranian ability to develop nuclear weapons means abandoning the Middle East to an arms race with nuclear proliferation (since the credibility of the NTP, the UN and the US would be zilch), Iranian power politics dominating the region (especially with religious undertones...) and the introduction of cold-war strategic thinking and nuclear war gaming plans into the relationships between Israel and its neighbors, much as that was part of the relationship between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
It's not a pretty world no matter how the scenario plays out. It becomes a question then whether it's a world where, when the nickel drops, a number of Iranians die or a significantly larger number of people in Iran, Israel, in the Arab World and most likely parts of Russia and Europe die as well.
Of course it's an unthinkable scenario. But that's exactly what the Islamicists in Iran are thinking that the West is thinking and why they don't care what the West thinks.
We don't even speak the same metalanguage. The West, principally the US but also most definitely Europe, thinks that because of their religious fanaticism, Iranians must be somehow primitive and dense. Far from it: they are as intelligent as we are, generally speaking, and they are not dumb. They have studied us and know how to play us.
As John Kerry's article shows: Give diplomacy a chance?
First you have to have an opponent who believes in diplomacy.