The Magazine

Meet the New Mullah

Same as the old mullah.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Which, by the way, it hasn’t. With the nuclear negotiations under Rouhani’s successor, the one-legged, religiously zealous, and incorruptible Saeed Jalili (who probably was Khamenei’s preferred presidential candidate), the Islamic Republic has advanced substantially. Given its ever-growing number of increasingly efficient centrifuges and the soon-to-be-operational plutonium-separation facility at Arak, Tehran could be within 18 months of having a two-week nuclear breakout capacity. Soon, its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will be irrelevant as a stepping stone to weaponization: Iran’s massive low-enriched uranium stockpile, which Rouhani has emphatically said is nonnegotiable, will be all that’s required to dash to a uranium-triggered bomb. 

That is an impressive achievement for a theocracy that not long ago had a hellacious time just building centrifuges. Sanctions cause real pain for some, especially in the lower and middle classes; but Khamenei, like his predecessor, never stops reminding the faithful that the Islamic Republic isn’t about economics. 

As Rouhani’s promise evaporates over the next few months, President Obama will stare at what he’s staring at now: a choice between preemptively bombing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites and allowing the supreme leader and his guards, who oversee both the nuclear program and terrorist operations abroad, the capacity to build an atomic weapon at any time of their choosing. The president has acknowledged the oncoming breakout capacity for the regime; he’s also pledged to stop it. As former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden has remarked, however, it’s hard to imagine James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, ever walking into the Oval Office and announcing that today is the day when the “red line” has been irretrievably crossed. Intelligence officers don’t do that. 

For the president to avoid this stark choice he needs Rouhani and Khamenei to play ball, to accept what was on the table at nuclear negotiations in Kazakhstan in the spring. Khamenei flatly refused that offer: “I’m not a diplomat; I’m a revolutionary,” he answered. Obama could up the ante: offer a really big bag of candy to the Iranian regime—all the stuff that “realists” believe motivates men—in exchange for a verifiable cessation of Iran’s uranium enrichment, openness about efforts at weaponization and the manufacture of centrifuges, a curtailment of centrifuge production, and the implementation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, which would allow U.N. inspectors access to any civilian or military site in the Islamic Republic without advance notice. 

Or the president could take a different tack. He could act on what the Iranian presidential contest clearly revealed: Sanctions are an issue inside the Islamic Republic. They haven’t stopped the nuclear program, but they have brought sufficient pain for the elite to debate their damage openly. Obama loves competitive sports, where weakness is always exploited. He should apply that wisdom elsewhere: Go to the French, British, and Germans and push hard for an embargo of the Islamic Republic. It’s doubtful the United States can implement the economy-crunching quarantine that the British brought against the oil-nationalizing Iranian prime minister Muhammad Mosaddeq in 1951. That embargo helped make Mosaddeq an unpopular prime minister by 1953, when Iranians—not Americans and Brits—removed him. 

But it’s worth a try. It’s also certainly worth doing what the Americans did in 2003: Scare the mullahs. After Saddam Hussein went down, the Iranian regime, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, stopped experimenting with nuclear triggers and warhead designs. In 2004, Khamenei accepted, even if briefly, Rouhani’s suspension of uranium enrichment. Update the fear: Obama could declare that he intends to attack Iran by air and by sea but that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards have the power to stop him. He could go to Congress and ask for authorization to strike. And he could tell his senior commanders to stop saying publicly that they neither foresee nor need to plan for another land war in Asia. 

 

For Obama to do that he would need to have what Rouhani has in spades: real experience in power politics. So we wait. Most probably the president will do what he’s most experienced at doing overseas—nothing. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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