Even before the recent inconclusive nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, President Barack Obama undoubtedly agreed with France’s national security adviser, Jean-David Levitte, when he described Tehran’s approach to nuclear negotiations with the West as a “farce” and the dictatorship of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as “fascist.” More aggressively than any president since Jimmy Carter, Obama has used sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The White House and the State Department have deployed a “coalition of the willing.” Washington has assiduously avoided punishing any major European, Russian, or Chinese transgressor of U.S.-mandated sanctions; rather, the administration has chosen to encourage compliance by underscoring the common threat of an Iranian bomb while suggesting that an American economic hammer, wielded by an increasingly pugnacious Congress, will eventually come down on malefactors.
Administration officials will tell you that the president aims only to coerce Khamenei into a compromise; privately, they’ll admit that his aim is to contain a nuclear Iran if sanctions fail to stop uranium enrichment. But few in the administration now believe that Khamenei will compromise unless sanctions endanger his regime. And containment, which is what Washington does when it wants to wage war without direct confrontation, is a regime-change strategy: Political and economic isolation is designed to nurture Iran’s convulsive internal contradictions, vividly on display after the June 12, 2009, elections. The contentious issue in Iran policy isn’t the goal—do we want Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards to fall? Democrats and Republicans differ on this far less than they did when President George W. Bush saw an “axis of evil.” The issue is timing: Can we put enough pressure on Khamenei and his praetorians to either crack the regime or make the supreme leader believe that the nuclear program actually threatens his rule?
The administration may try to avoid the inevitable—sanctions that significantly curtail the export of Iranian oil—by playing with the idea that the West and Tehran can settle for some enrichment inside the Islamic Republic that doesn’t allow for processing the quality and quantity of uranium for nuclear weapons. But such a “compromise” doesn’t pass the pinch test: There is no way the West can monitor Iranian compliance without an intrusive inspections regime, which Khamenei has adamantly refused. Tehran has often dodged the International Atomic Energy Agency’s current, polite inspection procedures and questions about suspicious Iranian behavior. And as the French, who’ve been deadly serious about nuclear proliferation since the first Gulf war in 1990-91, constantly point out, any enrichment will now allow Tehran the intellectual and mechanical means to advance weaponization. Western advocates of some enrichment are usually the same folks who don’t see Khamenei’s and the Revolutionary Guards’ possession of nuclear weaponry as all that worrisome. If you’ve already conceded the supreme leader an atomic bomb, enrichment isn’t an issue.
A negotiated “deal” with Tehran that concedes Iranian enrichment is a face-saving way for the West to avoid confessing that it would rather risk Khamenei’s having a nuke than face the two alternatives: a crippling sanctions regime, which could spike the price of oil, or an American preventive military strike.
But this avenue of escape isn’t open to the White House for a few simple reasons. First, such a deal would leave Khamenei apoplectic. Any agreement that would effectively stop the bomb potential of Iran’s 20-year nuclear program would be an enormous defeat. It’s now clear that the supreme leader wasn’t particularly fond of the nuclear talks with the European Union that began in 2003. Those talks, which dead-ended in 2005, became unacceptable when EU demands for a (temporary) suspension of uranium enrichment and the “Additional Protocol”—providing for intrusive inspections—became unavoidable. Since the elections of June 12, 2009, we have watched the supreme leader unleash his security forces to torture his country into political quiescence. He has manhandled, driven into exile, and imprisoned most of the “moderate” forces with whom the West once hoped to deal. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, one of the architects of the enrichment-pausing “Paris Agreement” of November 2004, now lives in exile in the United States, having fled Iran with his family. Has Khamenei triumphed over his internal enemies only to trade away the historic achievement of his regime? Psychologically, culturally, and religiously, this option for him makes no sense.