One of the hopes underlying the Obama Administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear negotiations has been that reaching a deal would moderate the behavior of the Iranian regime. . . . The structure of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), anticipates such an evolution in Iran. The restrictions it places on Iran begin phasing out in five years with the lifting of remaining limits on the export of arms to Iran, and sunset entirely in 10-15 years, after which Iran will face no restrictions on its nuclear fuel cycle or missile activities short of actually producing a nuclear weapon, which would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which Iran is a party. Absent any plan to negotiate a follow-on accord or to strengthen American deterrence in the Middle East, the deal thus represents a gamble on the P5+1’s part that Iran will not desire a nuclear weapon in a decade’s time.

This, as critics had expected, has not occurred. The notion that Iran would evolve in large part rested on an erroneous understanding about the Iranian regime:

Despite characterizations in the West of Iranian political elites as either “moderate” or “hardline,” such labels are both oversimplified — the Iranian political landscape is as diverse and complicated as any other country’s — and often flat wrong. Wendy Sherman, who as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs acted as the lead American negotiator of the JCPOA, asserted recently that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, often categorized as the leader of a supposed “moderate” faction in Iran, “is not a moderate — he is a hardliner.”5 The “moderate” and “hardliner” labels are insidious, as they feed temptations by Western policymakers to divide Iranian officialdom into “good guys” and “bad guys” with respect to the West’s own worldview and interests.

There are divisions on domestic economic and political issues and matters of tactics, as Singh explains, but neither side is pro-Western or inclined to give up the regime’s nuclear ambitions or plans for regional hegemony. (“[So-called moderate President] Rouhani has vigorously defended Iran’s missile program and vowed to expand it in response to US sanctions threats, and has insisted that Iran feels free to buy and sell whatever arms it pleases, despite restrictions imposed by UN Security Council resolution 2231. He has also stressed that “President Assad must remain” in Syria, and has praised the Iranian military presence in both Syria and Iraq.”) Singh concludes that there is “not a clear difference between Rouhani and his domestic adversaries over Iran’s (or the United States’) rightful role in the region or its regional and national security policies, but rather a divide over the best way to achieve its foreign policy aims.” The implications should be clear for President Obama’s successor since engagement pays no dividends and arguably begets more concessions: “Given the strategic challenge that Iran poses to US interests in the Middle East — in its support for terrorism and subversive non-state actors, threat to freedom of commerce and navigation in regional waterways, pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and other destabilizing pursuits — the American approach to diplomacy with Iran cannot simply consist of a series of transactional engagements but should instead be nested in a broader strategy to counter the challenges posed by Iran and advance a stabilizing regional agenda.”

Unfortunately, we are now taking the opposite approach. While the JCPOA has not altered Iran’s ambitions, it has made the Obama administration even more eager to avoid confronting Iran, checking its ambitions and responding to provocations such as the ballistic missile tests. The administration rejects sanctions for illegal missile tests, human rights violations, regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism for fear of losing the deal. In short, we are paralyzed, afraid to assert our national interests while Iran is emboldened.

Neither of the two parties’ presidential front-runners wants to rip up the Iran deal. Hillary Clinton, however, recently said she supports sanctions against Iran for its missile tests. She would be wise to sketch out a “a broader strategy to confront Iran’s bad behavior in the region,” as she put it in a speech in September 2015. She vowed:

I will build a coalition to counter Iran’s proxies, particularly Hezbollah.  . . . Beyond Hezbollah, I’ll crack down the shipment of weapons to Hamas and push Turkey and Qatar to end their financial support. I’ll press our partners in the region to prevent aircraft and ships owned by companies linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from entering their territories and urge our partners to block Iranian planes from entering their airspace on their way to Yemen and Syria. Across the board, I will vigorously enforce and strengthen if necessary the American sanctions on Iran and its Revolutionary Guard for its sponsorship of terrorism, its ballistic missile program, and other destabilizing activities. I’ll enforce and strengthen if necessary our restrictions on sending arms to Iran and from Iran, to bad actors like Syria. And I’ll impose these sanctions on everyone involved in these activities, whether they’re in Iran or overseas. This will be a special imperative as some of the U.N. sanctions lapse, so the U.S. and our partners have to step up. . . .
I’ll stand, as I always have, against Iran’s abuses of home, from its detention of political prisoners to its crackdown on freedom of expression, including online. Its inhumane policies hold back talented and spirited people. Our quarrel is not and never has been with the Iranian people. They’d have a bright future, a hopeful future if they weren’t held back by their leaders. As I’ve said before, I think we were too restrained in our support of the protests in June 2009, and in our condemnation of the government crackdown that followed. That won’t happen again.

If sincere, that approach shows promise, and Republicans and Democrats alike should be vigilant and insistent that Clinton’s rhetoric turns into concrete policy actions if she is elected. As for Donald Trump, don’t expect anything resembling a coherent plan from the man who wants Iran’s strongest ally, Bashar al-Assad, to remain in place.

With a new president comes the opportunity for candor about Iran, its objectives and our commitment to stopping nuclear proliferation, regional aggression, mass human rights atrocities and the spread of jihadist terror. That means, however, that the next president has to be clear-eyed, informed and determined. Since Trump is none of those things, we should hope Clinton or an alternative third candidate is.