As Iraq descends into chaos, the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran hangs over the Middle East. Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on the inner workings of the Iranian regime, tells Right Turn that sanctions have put pressure on the mullahs: “The Iranian regime wants to achieve some kind of agreement since it is desperate for cash.” Meanwhile, “President Obama needs a foreign policy achievement he can market as a victory.” That, however, doesn’t bode well for disarming Iran. “I’m not sure it will be a good deal,” he says. “Even worse . . . I’m not sure Iran can deliver.”
Even if one doesn’t accept the view – as many conservatives do – that the entire negotiation is a charade intended to deceive the West, it is easy to see how Iran, after making a deal, would be compelled to break it. President Hassan Rouhani may be the face of moderation, but whatever influence he has is curtailed by the power residing with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The latter, in particular, has everything to gain from Iran’s emergence as a nuclear state. Alfoneh explains that when Pakistan became a nuclear state, Pakistan’s military, the keeper of the nuclear arsenal, came out the big winner. That experience isn’t lost on the IRG, which sacrificed greatly in the Iran-Iraq War and now expects its reward and expects the populace in general to endure hardship (i.e. sanctions) if need be.
So even in the best-case scenario – Rouhani wants a deal, and Khamenei allows it – whatever modest concessions Obama gets are not likely to hold up. Whenever the next popular uprising occurs, the regime will be once again at the mercy of the IRG to protect it and thereby obliged to indulge its aspirations of becoming the exalted guardians of the nuclear weapons treasure chest.
And that is the good-case scenario. Other analysts see Khamenei wedded to Iran’s status as a nuclear powerhouse, a symbol of Iran’s achievement over the West and the ultimate blackmail card for its regional aspirations. That means there will be no impetus for any deal approaching acceptable terms for the West.
U.S. critics of the president’s foreign policy, on one hand, see virtually no chance that Iran will give up anything meaningful in a final nuclear deal, making agreement impossible. On the other hand, recognizing how desperate the president is for a foreign policy triumph, they don’t put it past him to cook up a deal that essentially freezes Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, thus allowing Iran to resume its nuclear weapons program virtually at will.
Even more troubling is the administration’s lack of focus on Iran’s horrendous human rights record. The administration has seemingly excluded human rights from the ongoing talks, thereby providing the prospect of sanctions relief with no change in Iran’s internal repression and exportation of terror. Alfoneh observes, “The Iranian people are deeply concerned the administration is forsaking them for a nuclear deal.” They’ve got that right.
The administration, forgetting the lessons of the Cold War (or choosing to ignore them), made the decision early on to separate human rights and arms talks. In the Cold War, it was only by dint of joining the two that we were able to make progress on the former. The administration’s decision was a cardinal error, which may be too late to reverse. Alfoneh nevertheless takes comfort in Congress’s expressed determination to demand improvement in Iran’s human rights and in its sponsorship of terror before sanctions relief is granted.
The tragedy – at least one of them – is that the regime in the past has been amenable to outside pressure on individual human rights cases (e.g. commuting a woman’s death sentence for adultery). Moreover, significant segments of Iran’s population eschew government propaganda and remain favorably disposed to the United States, as evidenced by the ongoing desire to get out for studying or other opportunities here. Our dismissal of their human rights plight will squander the potential goodwill of the Iranian people, convincing them (as did our inaction in Syria) that the United States cares nothing for the aspirations of the region’s people, only for its own security.
A course correction is necessary if we are to peacefully disarm Iran and check the mullahs’ domestic and international misconduct. To begin with, Alfoneh warns, “The administration should not show so much eagerness for a deal.” We’ve already undercut our credibility (by, for example, refusing to pass conditional sanctions and looking the other way on Iran’s noncooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors). Equally important, however, is to rejoin human rights and nuclear issues at the bargaining table. “If the administration can’t do it,” Alfoneh says, “Congress should do it.”
Increasingly these days, the only hope of avoiding foreign policy calamities rests with Congress. We should hope that lawmakers are up to the task.