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This morning at the 3 West Club in New York City, Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech and answered questions on American foreign policy.  He focused on Cuba and Iran, and the discussion turned mostly on specific policy actions the Senator might take if he does win the White House next year.

But at the beginning of his prepared statement, Rubio spoke in grand terms, pronouncing a flat characterization of Iranian leaders as religious visionaries with a global ambition. They imagine the entire world under Islamic rule, he asserted, and they believe it will happen only after “a cataclysmic showdown with the West.”

That conclusion is worth pausing over. Assessments of religious fervor in Iran mark a dividing line in the United States. People who take it seriously are disposed to regard the deal as dangerous—as Rubio put it, a “string of concessions to a sworn enemy of the United States.” If Iranians really believe it, why are we bothering?

People who don’t take it seriously regard the deal otherwise. They see religious aims as flexible, because religious convictions generally run less deep among them.

It’s a neoliberal premise: if you work with people, talk with them, and, most importantly, do commerce with them, their adversarial religious scruples will diminish. If we can get more Iranians to listen to U.S. music and buy U.S. goods, the image of The Great Satan will fade.

It’s not that liberal supporters of the Iranian plan ignore or dismiss Iran’s religious thinking and doing, then. It’s that they find religious conviction no different than political allegiance and consumer taste. Alter the circumstances that people inhabit, and anything can change.

Religious believers of any kind aren’t so sure. They see faith surviving through worldly changes, and they feel their own faith as a rock. When they hear a powerful Iranian cleric speaking politics, they sense the religious certainty underneath it.

Secularists hear the politics just as well, but they don’t count the religion as its ground. For them, religion is politics, and politics can always be adjusted. 

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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