Editor's Note: Read the original essay, by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, that prompted this response.
Reading through the Iranian foreign minister’s article in The Atlantic this week, one is struck by paradox. It is so full of lies, distortions, and half-truths that in the end it yields one fundamental truth—it’s not a set of errors, it’s a methodology. The goal is to turn Iran into a regional nuclear power. The method is to make the West believe it isn’t happening.
There is no need for a sustained intelligence effort to expose the blatant lies in Zarif’s piece, so I will highlight just a few of the most egregious examples: Iran didn’t improve the accuracy of its missiles to avoid “civilian or non-combatant deaths” (I admit I had to read that sentence twice to believe he wrote it), but rather to intensify the threat and ability to sow destruction. Iran is not a democracy, as he portrays it, because a democracy doesn’t hang homosexuals from cranes, doesn’t enshrine in law the right to stone adulterers to death, and doesn’t maintain a force like the Basij, an Iranian paramilitary of around 11.5 million people whose role is to enforce Sharia law and prevent Western influence. Iran isn’t the victim of terror as Zarif pretends, but the country that funds and arms Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and a long list of other terror organizations. Iran does not show “good will and peaceful intentions,” because if it did it wouldn’t have sent the Revolutionary Guard to help the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad murder more than half a million people in Syria and create over 11 million refugees through the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Iran is not interested in the “promotion of peace, stability, progress, and prosperity in the region” because earlier this year Zarif’s boss, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, called Israel “a cancerous tumor” and a “fake entity” which needs to be destroyed. On another occasion he announced that Iran will support anyone who aims to “wipe Israel off the map.”
Probably the greatest of Zarif’s lies is that Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 to “prevent further instability in the region.” Iran signed the deal because the sanctions were threatening to destroy its economy and weaken the Ayatollah’s regime. If Iran had wanted regional stability, then we wouldn’t have discovered in 2002 that Iran built two covert nuclear reactors in Natanz and Arak. We also wouldn’t have been exposed to the 2011 IAEA report which laid out that, in contravention to all the agreements Iran had signed, it continued to enrich uranium and carry out tests whose sole purpose was the development of a nuclear weapon. This may be an uncomfortable truth, but at least it is the truth.
Zarif lies because he’s a professional. That’s Tehran’s method. They say one thing in English and something else in Persian, and in the end do something totally different. I don’t often agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu but his description of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is right on the money. The Ayatollahs always believed in their ability to deceive the West. In their view the West is weak and immoral, and will do anything to avoid conflict. That worldview was crystallized after the 1983 attack in Beirut in which 241 American troops (mostly Marines) and 58 French soldiers were killed. Although it was proven beyond all doubt that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were behind the attack (an American court ruled that Iran must pay $2.6 billion in compensation to the families of the victims), the Iranians engaged in a sustained media campaign to cover up their involvement. By exploiting the Western media, Iran helped to prevent the United States from executing the response the U.S. military had planned on Iranian soil. Since then they have believed it is possible to deceive the West, especially because the West wants to deceive itself.
Sadly, the deal signed with Iran in the summer of 2015 only strengthened that conviction. Since the deal was signed, they have significantly expanded their ballistic missile program, started building a permanent military presence in Syria, increased the export of advanced weapons to terror organizations—foremost amongst them Hezbollah—and are constantly testing the boundaries with IAEA inspectors to continue to develop their nuclear program. They’re doing all that in a far more comfortable environment than before, because the JCPOA enabled them to sign wide-ranging economic agreements with the Chinese, Russians, and Europeans.
President Trump’s argument that Iran is violating “the spirit of the deal” was met with ridicule and contempt in Iran, but it’s accurate. The goal of the agreement was not to give Iran legitimacy and the ability to increase its involvement in terror and the development of advanced weapons. The agreement was also not intended to allow Iran to threaten America’s allies, principally Saudi Arabia and Israel. If that’s the result of the deal, then cancelling or at least dramatically strengthening the JCPOA must be the right path.
Zarif’s article should remind us of the central problem with the Iranian regime—it hasn’t forgone, even for a moment, the desire to turn into a dominant nuclear power and to sow chaos in the Middle East. Its members are sophisticated players and so they understand that the path to achieving their ambitions doesn’t just go through underground reactors but also through the realms of media and diplomacy. That’s their way of buying time and strengthening their position, and they won’t stop until they are stopped.