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Scare Tehran, Please

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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But the nuclear negotiations ultimately hinge, as even Cirincione sees, on the president’s willingness to unleash the Air Force and Navy. The rub is that the White House doesn’t want to use the threat of force before the negotiations end; it only wants do so after a deal has been signed, when the threat of force has no leverage. But the Iranian regime always uses Machtpolitik to get what it wants, and if we don’t, we’re not serious. It’s quite likely that the administration and its partners in the think-tank community will actually call on Congress to authorize the use of force after a deal is approved by Khamenei—not because they want to scare the supreme leader and his men (that possibility will have already been lost), but to provide Democratic politicians domestic cover, a show of toughness for the electorate and perhaps a bit of psychological salve for themselves. 

It’s a pity. There is still a chance that if the president seriously threatened to use force before the informal deadline for the Joint Plan of Action in July—and it would be a hard sell in Tehran after his red-line debacle in Syria—he might be able to push the supreme leader into a corner where he’d have to make crippling nuclear compromises. If the Iranian regime is “rational” when it comes to American military power, and Khamenei has clearly shown that he is, then the supreme leader would likely prove flexible so long as he were sure that an American president would strike. The United States’ armed might—not economic coercion or reward—has always been the best trump that Washington could use to neutralize Tehran’s atomic aspirations. 

Look at the past. The Islamic Republic’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program was publicly revealed by an Iranian opposition group in August 2002 (Western intelligence services were aware of it earlier). The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted that Tehran’s development of a nuclear trigger, which is used only in bombs, was probably halted in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion. Other aspects of the weapons program—the development and deployment of centrifuges and uranium enrichment—also slowed or were temporarily frozen. All of Tehran was then noisily wondering whether the Islamic Republic would be the next member of the “axis of evil” to be taken down. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, who was then in Tehran with the International Crisis Group, has recounted how Iranian officials were fearfully mesmerized by the display of American will and muscle. Rouhani took great pride in his memoirs and on the stump in his presidential campaign that he, as Iran’s nuclear negotiator, had kept the regime’s atomic quest alive in those trying times through concessions that were only temporary. Iran’s nuclear program accelerated after 2005 with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential triumph, which Khamenei celebrated, and with the floundering of the Bush administration in Iraq. 

The Obama administration—the president in particular—has had great difficulty in handling the fact that George W. Bush’s decision to eliminate Saddam Hussein altered Tehran’s nuclear calculations. It has been an article of faith for this president that the Iraq war was an egregious mistake. Early in his presidency, he sincerely tried to reach out to Khamenei, suggesting that the enmity between the two countries was surmountable. Obama has consistently resisted or diluted bipartisan congressional efforts to strengthen sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Such hesitancy had various causes, but the supreme leader clearly could have read it as a sign that the White House preferred a less confrontational approach. 

The president’s good intentions and restraint—which survived even an Iranian plan to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Georgetown restaurant in 2011 and Khamenei’s all-out support of Bashar al-Assad’s savage rampage in Syria—have been reciprocated by Iranian nuclear advances and zealously nasty anti-American rhetoric from the supreme leader. Since 2008, Tehran has ramped up its centrifuge production, uranium enrichment, heavy-water reactor construction, and ballistic-missile development. Iran has probably made more progress in its nuclear-weapons program on Obama’s watch than at any earlier time.

Yet some Iranian fear remains. Tehran hasn’t ejected the IAEA inspectors and cameras at the known nuclear sites. It has installed and tested but not thrown into full-throttle its advanced centrifuges (this may be more a question of imported parts than fear). It has been careful about how much medium-enriched uranium, which is a small step from bomb-grade, it stockpiles. Progress at the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which if completed could produce plutonium, has been constant—but not a damn-the-consequences mad dash (again, parts may be a factor). 

As July draws nearer, the White House should show that it wants the nuclear deal less than Khamenei and Rouhani do. Above all else, the president and senior officials should be playing on the supreme leader’s longstanding insecurity vis-à-vis American might. Sanctions alone were never going to stop the mullahs’ nuclear quest. Given the enormous progress Tehran has made in the last five years, an honest analyst would have to conclude that sanctions are probably no longer relevant to rolling back the program. But nothing could be more helpful—intimidating to Tehran—than to have Congress “handcuff” the president through legislation now clearly defining the terms of successful nuclear negotiations and the consequences for Iran of failure. Those who fear American preventive military action more than they do a nuclear weapon in the hands of the supreme leader don’t really care what kind of deal is concluded with Tehran. In the end, they would accept an agreement that neither dismantles nor intrusively monitors the Iranian regime’s atomic achievements. If President Obama isn’t in this camp, then he needs to overcome his aversion to seeing diplomacy as an adjunct to the threat of war. The Iranian regime plays hardball. To win now, we have to openly prepare to fight.

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