The fundamental question when discussing a nuclear deal with Tehran is this: Are you prepared to fight over it? If not, then any deal is a good deal. This willingness to go to the mat also affects whether you are prepared to push back against the clerical regime in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, and even whether and how you are willing to advance a regime-change policy—regime change, incidentally, being what an increasingly big and vocal slice of the Iranian people want. Westerners should appreciate the religio-political evolution of the Islamic Republic. The rebellion against an Islamist clerisy ought to ring our inner chimes and make us realize that the Western and Islamic worlds share a lot of intellectual property, that they are, as V.S. Naipaul astutely noted after traversing the Middle East and landing at Bombay, two branches of the same family.
But the debate over the deal illuminates much about the debate over differing approaches to the Islamic Republic. In a recent Atlantic article, Phil Gordon sums up the things I wouldn’t concede to the regime as if those demands were unreasonable: Absolutely, I would never concede advanced centrifuges, long-range ballistic missiles, inspections that never touch Revolutionary Guard bases—where we know the regime once worked on nuclear triggers—and nuclear-weapons research files and personnel that are all off limits to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. Just the concession of the last two means in practice that one can never know whether the regime is cheating outside of surveilled sites. This ought to be a critical issue for anyone who cares about the deal’s substance, and not just about punting a problem down the road.
Obama conceded an industrial-scale nuclear-weapons industry and all we got in return is a bit of time. Once Iranian engineers perfect high-velocity centrifuges, which will take Ali Akbar Salehi, the atomic “energy” chief, and his merry men no more than a decade, it’s game, set, match. Unless a miracle happens, the Central Intelligence Agency will have no means to detect bomb-grade enrichment at small cascades the mullahs could disperse throughout the country. When we have a deal that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Quds Force and expeditionary militia overlord Qassem Soleimani, and Salehi all approve of, we have a deal that everyone should run from. Obama did not. I strongly suspect because he had already conceded the bomb.
And without a willingness to risk direct confrontation with the regime, regional pushback against Tehran will always just be rhetoric—the type of pro forma comments you heard regularly from Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy people, or now at Brookings in well-intentioned strategy sessions. If Washington retains the nuclear agreement, even economic pushback against the regime for its barbarism in Syria is an illusion, since any serious coercion runs smack into the guiding principle of the JCPOA: sanctions relief in exchange for temporary nuclear restraint.
To punish seriously the mullahs for mass murder in Syria—and the Iranians have been essentially running the savage ground game since the late Revolutionary Guard General Hosein Hamedani took over the Syrian militia system in 2013—sanctions would need to be big, too big probably for the confines of Obama’s deal. (The Iranians really want to keep the deal because of all its strategic goodies, so they might be willing to endure significant sanctions pain before they call it quits.) In the eyes of the Europeans and most Washington Democrats, acceptable sanctions against Iran for its crimes in the Levant will always be just south of where they might jeopardize the JCPOA. That sad fact may even be why the Trump administration’s sanctions against the Islamic Republic have so far been—with the possible exception of its designation of the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization—pretty lame. The Trump White House’s sanctions—barring the Rev Guard designation—could have been approved by Obama.
To put it another way, the JCPOA helped strategically and ethically to enfeeble former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Former ambassador Frederic Hof, who oversaw Syria policy at the State Department after 2012, claims that concern about the nuclear diplomacy and outreach to the Islamic Republic just morally annihilated the Obama administration’s approach to Syria. I’m willing to accept the contention that Obama would have done nothing in Syria regardless of his outreach to Khamenei because he was deadly serious about downsizing America in the region. The all-critical inflection point for Mr. Obama’s red-line Syria fiasco in 2013 may not have been his dreams of engaging Khamenei but the fear of a Middle Eastern slippery slope. The two aspirations are not, of course, mutually exclusive.
Gordon himself wasn’t content with the position that Obama took on Syria. All to his credit, I guess, though I have to ask how he could have squared doing anything serious in Syria and maintaining the JCPOA. They seem mutually exclusive to me. It makes no sense—unless one is scared of war with the clerical regime beyond all else—for the United States to allow the regime more money for its imperialism. Surely among the most embarrassing moments for the Obama administration was when Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, and Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan suggested that monies gained through the nuclear agreement would largely go to domestic spending—as if the Islamic Republic were a Western welfare state.
The JCPOA has effectively made America a handmaiden to the clerical regime’s adventurism. We will soon see what President Trump will do if he walks away from the atomic accord and whether that act will oblige him to deal more forcefully with Iranian imperialism. His allergy to America in the Muslim Middle East is strong, perhaps as strong as Obama’s.
On that depressing note, let me turn to regime change, where things look better. To be clear: I don’t view regime change as an answer to the mullahs’ quest for the bomb. I would support regime change even if the ruling clerical elite and the Revolutionary Guards weren’t gunning for nuclear weapons. And I would not base any U.S. strategy on an atomic timeline. Regime change ought to be the ultimate goal of American foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic for the simple reason that only when the Islamist dictatorship collapses will Iranian malevolence against the United States cease. I do think it’s highly unlikely that, if the theocracy falls, the succeeding Iranian government will develop nuclear-tipped missiles. If the next government is democratic, which is likely given the evolution of Iran’s polity, it certainly won’t, since the clerical regime’s hegemonic ambitions have limited traction in Iranian society, and domestic demands, as we have witnessed in the risings in 2009 and the end of last year, will take precedence.
I don’t know if the Islamic Republic is “on its last legs.” Yet the regime experienced a near-death experience during the Green Revolution protests in 2009-2010. The profound regime depression provoked by the provincial demonstrations, which started last December, continues. (This has undoubtedly been helped by Mr. Trump, who scares the regime, and has helped to send the riyal through the basement floor. More credit goes, of course, to the Islamic Republic’s fundamental dysfunction, especially in economics. ) There are many reasons to believe that the theocracy is in serious trouble.
When George Kennan wrote his famous article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” he didn’t think the U.S.S.R. was near collapse. The potential imminence of such a collapse is not why we should want it in Iran. We should want it because we recognize the regime’s implacable, virulent hatred of the United States, and its religious-fascist roots that give birth to awful conspiracies and vicious imperialism. One of the most disconcerting things about the Obama administration’s approach toward Iran was how it so misread, miscast, or usually just ignored what the Iranian regime was saying. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is many things, but a “moderate,” as Western media tends to describe him, is not one of them. Khamenei is way, way beyond “complicated,” to use Mr. Obama’s description. If the Roman God Mendacious came down to earth, he would be Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Doing what we can—and yes, we undoubtedly will make stupid mistakes in this effort—to get rid of this regime would be a blessing to us and the region. It’s always good to remember what Bob Kagan remarked about waging foreign policy: Like in baseball, if you bat just a bit north of .300, you’ll probably make it into the Hall of Fame.
Concerning past parallels that concern Gordon, I don’t believe that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down the Soviet Union. Far from it. The inhumanity—the unsustainable, impoverishing, soul-erasing, fun-obliterating contradictions of communism—brought down the Soviet Union. Reagan’s willingness to build up American defenses and push back, and to state clearly what folks like Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter seemed unable to say—that the Soviet Union was an evil empire ready for the dustbin—gave a timely shove. Without Reagan, the U.S.S.R. might have lasted far longer.
And Reagan certainly didn’t allow arms-control treaties to stand in the way of the larger mission. Neither should we. We can ratchet up a lot of economic pain for the Iranian regime. Rouhani made a lot of promises before he was elected president, promises that he could not keep. Broken promises and lost hope can provoke internal unrest.
Before anything else, the United States has to get the rhetoric right. President Trump’s statements about tyranny and human rights in Iran have been better than President Obama’s (they could hardly be worse). But there is certainly lots of room for Washington to echo and amplify the cause of those fighting against religious dictatorship. We know from the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain that such rhetorical support kept men and women spiritually, sometimes physically, alive. We should never treat Iranians as if they are somehow different than non-Muslims. I don’t support arming Iranian minorities, even the ones who’ve been cruelly oppressed by the regime. But I certainly do think America can do more to publicize their plight and punish the mullahs economically, diplomatically, and legally for their ghastly behavior. And there is, of course, a place for the CIA. Not a big one. I have been involved in Iranian covert action and read voluminous files about the agency’s covert activities elsewhere: I have no delusions about what can and cannot be done. But Langley could do, I am sure, a lot more to fracture the fraternity of the Revolutionary Guards and bring dissident entertainment to the masses.
People like Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry want to believe that greater commerce with Iran, plus patience, will set us free. That’s the approach they would probably still like with North Korea—bribery as diplomacy, and the illusion that money will soothe the totalitarian beast. But North Korea has nukes, they have thousands of artillery tubes that can level Seoul, and the U.S. has only the option of nuclear retaliation against them to prevent things from getting really awful. The only question that remains is why anyone would want to walk down the same path with the Islamic Republic. The Agreed Framework of 1994 is the JCPOA.
I am always amused by how men of the left, whenever the possibility of military confrontation looms, find comfort in the supposedly transformative promise of capitalism. This is a particularly Western—Christian—way of looking at the mainspring of the soul. One would think given the fertile history of capitalism cross-breeding with fascism that American liberals would be more judicious in such hopes. In Iran there is no paralyzing tension between a Revolutionary Guard commander or mullah making millions while plotting the deaths of thousands in Syria, installing in Lebanon ever-better conventional missiles aimed at Tel Aviv, or building nuclear triggers at Parchin.
It’s the hardest task but the first commandment in foreign affairs—one that has bedeviled both Democratic and Republican administrations in dealing with the Islamic Republic: Don’t mirror image. We need to take Iranian revolutionaries seriously. They have principles and pride. They have integrity and a cause. The United States and the clerical regime haven’t had problems, as President Obama sometimes suggested, because we’d failed to reach out and because we misapprehended each other. We haven’t had problems because they seized our diplomats, or because we supported (however lamely) a coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. Look into the archives of the State Department and the CIA and you will see that Washington regularly tried to engage, even before Bill Clinton started apologizing for the British Empire.
We remain at odds because we are enemies, because they choose to be our enemy. For cause: Americans’ most basic beliefs, let alone all the desiderata of modern Western culture, are carcinogenic to them. If Obama and his diplomats had gone into nuclear negotiations with the clerical regime with that understanding guiding them, the JCPOA as it is surely would not exist.