Analyzing the Islamic Republic isn’t a guessing game—at least it shouldn’t be. Iranian Islamists’ words and deeds are pretty consistent. Memoirs, speeches, and biographies have poured forth from those who made and sustain the regime. The New York Times and Senator Edward Kennedy may have called Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini an “enigma” and “the George Washington” of his country, respectively, but that was surely because no one at the newspaper or in the senator’s office had read the lectures that the mullah gave in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, in 1970. To be fair to the Times and Kennedy, most scholars, spooks, intelligence analysts, and foreign-service officers hadn’t paid much attention to the clerics, either. They were too primitive for the secular set.
Like Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902), Khomeini’s 1970 lectures, published as Islamic Government, give a good picture of a new vanguard leading a purged and transformed society. Later, if more Iran experts had paid attention to Ali Khamenei—Khomeini’s successor, who may be even more ideological in his world view, and less to the liking of the Westernized leftists who’d rallied around the reformist president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005)—fewer would have made so gross an error as to predict the evanescing of Iranian theocracy in the 1990s. “Realists” like Secretary of State John Kerry always want to apply Jacques Derrida to foreign policy: Ideas reified on the page, let alone in speech, just can’t compete with the supposedly overwhelming interest any state has in seeing geopolitical and economic challenges in a “rational” manner. Some Democratic congressmen and senior administration officials appear to be giving the Iranian regime a strange benefit of the doubt. They apparently conjecture that what Iranians say in Persian at home is less reliable than what they say in private in English in salons in New York, hotel rooms in Europe, or palaces in Oman hosting “secret” rendezvous. Lying less in English to foreign non-Muslims would be a first for the Middle East.
So what can one say when officials at the White House, Democratic congressmen, newspaper editors, heavyweight columnists, think tankers, and academics describe the “interim” nuclear deal struck on November 24 in Geneva—athletically titled the “Joint Plan of Action”—as a serious diplomatic first step that could lead us away from an Iranian nuke and an American “march to war”? Khamenei and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps have never been taciturn in describing how attached they are to their nuclear program and how much they loathe the United States. The U.S. government knows—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that the clerical regime has been importing and building the means to construct nuclear weapons for more than 20 years. It has tracked Tehran’s progress in long-range ballistic missiles, weapons that wouldn’t be worth the investment if the Revolutionary Guards only wanted to deploy conventional or chemical warheads. It knows that newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—the Batman and Robin of regime “pragmatism” who are supposedly keeping the hardliners in Tehran barely at bay—are lying through their luminous teeth when they say that the Islamic Republic has never had any design to build atomic weapons.
One has to ask what in the world deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes meant when he confessed, “It just stands to reason if you close the diplomatic option, you’re left with a difficult choice of waiting to see if sanctions cause Iran to capitulate, which we don’t think will happen, or considering military action.” Rarely has a senior official so succinctly revealed the bankruptcy of a president’s approach (former defense secretary Robert Gates and United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, who recently gutted Barack Obama’s “neo-realist” foreign policy in a speech to the National Democratic Institute, took many more words).
Let us parse Rhodes’s statement. First, the White House believes diplomacy will end if the Joint Plan of Action is abandoned or altered. This is odd since the administration also says that the interim deal is just the beginning of a process, which could take up to one year, to dismantle (the White House really means diminish) the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-weapons capability. Even if the administration only intends to retard the program, the supreme leader will have to make vastly greater concessions in the next 12 months than he did in the opening round. A recent report from the Institute for Science and International Security, headed by the former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, estimates that in order to ensure that the program serves only civilian purposes, Tehran would have to disable approximately 15,000 centrifuges from its uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, close down the Fordow facility, where the most advanced centrifuges are being installed, and convert the heavy-water reactor at Arak to a light-water facility incapable of producing plutonium for a bomb. The ISIS projection would still leave Tehran with an enrichment capacity—it would still have 4,000 spinning first-generation centrifuges. Yet these steps would severely impede the regime from using the known facilities in a rapid or surreptitious way.
Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi, has flatly stated this will not happen. “As far as we are concerned, the heavy-water reactor at Arak is clear: It must remain as a heavy-water reactor. Iran’s nuclear program has not been set back at all—its expansion has only been stopped for a little while. Under [the interim] agreement, the system of Iran’s nuclear program is absolutely preserved, but in the sanctions system, there are cracks.”
Ali Akbar Salehi, the current head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and former foreign minister, echoes Araghchi: “We are not halting any nuclear activity, but only voluntarily reducing enrichment for six months, so that there can be comprehensive negotiations to determine what will happen with enrichment above 5 percent. If they see any concession [on our part], it is voluntary. The activity at Arak, the enrichment to 5 percent, all the activity to discover [uranium ore deposits], the research, and the development will continue. No activity will be halted.”
As Salehi, a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from M.I.T., must know well, neutralizing Iran’s nuclear weapons quest would also require Tehran to make available its paperwork and engineers involved with centrifuge-manufacturing and the importation of centrifuge parts and open Iran to unchallenged spot inspections by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Khamenei’s foreign-affairs adviser, former foreign minister Ali Velayati, has stated flatly that the Islamic Republic will not allow inspections of undeclared sites. And Salehi would be among the first to be rigorously questioned since he has quite likely had a major hand in overseeing the evasion of sanctions against nuclear-related technology since the 1980s. The regime’s centrifuge research, untouched by the interim deal, will give it the capacity to construct ever-more advanced centrifuges in larger numbers, provided Tehran has no supply problems. And why should it have supply problems? So far, U.N., U.S., and EU sanctions against nuclear-related machinery have not seriously impeded the regime’s impressive growth in centrifuge production since 2006 (134 spinning centrifuges then; around 9,000 spinning with an additional 10,000 installed today). Industrial-scale manufacturing of advanced centrifuges would make buried and heavily protected facilities like Natanz and Fordow unnecessary since defense against bombardment would become less critical.
According to nuclear experts at ISIS and the University of Virginia, the U.S. government has no satellite or aerial means of detecting an enrichment facility hidden in a warehouse. Unless we had truly exceptional human intelligence, the Iranian regime could deploy lots of smaller cascades in place of the larger facilities, and the Pentagon and Langley would have no idea where to strike. Low-enriched, 5 percent uranium could be produced and refined further at clandestine facilities. The interim deal allows the Iranians to keep their current 5 percent enriched uranium stockpile, which is sufficient to produce half-a-dozen bombs. Clandestine facilities loaded with advanced centrifuges could easily be started from scratch and rapidly developed. According to CIA officers, Langley has been unable to penetrate either Iran’s ruling elite or the nuclear-weapons research establishment. There is no reason to believe our luck will improve. It is inconceivable to the Iranian elite that Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and Rouhani—who proudly boasts in his memoirs that Iran’s nuclear progress is part of his legacy—would allow foreigners to destroy centrifuges, downgrade Arak, have access to the classified paperwork of the nuclear program, and debrief Salehi on how the Islamic Republic has cheated for more than two decades.
The only (barely) conceivable circumstances under which the supreme leader would make dramatic concessions setting back the nuclear program are if (1) the pain of sanctions is so intense that he fears for the regime’s survival, (2) the military threat from the Obama administration is tangible and regime-threatening, or (3) Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, who dominate a big slice of the Iranian economy, get hooked on sanctions relief and become avaricious and avuncular capitalists, caring more about money and the common folk than they do about nukes.
After the Syrian debacle, (2) seems surreal. Hardly a day goes by that senior Revolutionary Guard officers don’t mock the military will of an America that they see in a headlong retreat from the Middle East. When White House officials castigate Democratic senators who want to pass new sanctions legislation, which would only come into effect if Iran failed to dismantle its nuclear-weapons program, as hell-bent or careless warmongers, it clearly signals to Tehran that the Syrian retreat, even more than the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, is the administration’s defining moment.
Barack Obama might still be obliged to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but surely this would only happen if Khamenei or the Revolutionary Guards, who have direct control of the nuclear-weapons program, did something monumentally stupid—like organize another big terrorist strike against Americans. Given the president’s allergic reaction to having Congress stipulate that any terrorist strike by Iran would trigger new sanctions, and given the reasonable conjecture that an American military response to Iranian terrorism could possibly lead to a war with, even an American invasion of, the Islamic Republic, an Iranian act of terrorism might have to be really big to force Obama to take out Tehran’s nuclear sites. That leaves either (1) or (3).
Although (3) is probably what the administration is banking on, and is certainly where the president’s men will rhetorically slide if sanctions relief proves to be worth much more to Iran than the $7 billion claimed by the White House, this reasoning makes no historical sense. The Iranian regime has already lost at least $100 billion because of nuke-related sanctions. And freer, easier trade would have an explosive effect on the entire economy. If the regime had at any time been as pragmatic as American “realists” have thought (and hope of a new pragmatism has flowered in Washington after every Iranian presidential election since Khomeini died in 1989), the Islamic Republic would already be hundreds of billions of dollars richer. A simple “Hi!” from Khamenei to an American president, let alone the restoration of diplomatic relations, would have led to a tidal wave of Western investment. This did not happen because the supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard commanders (like Qasem Suleimani, who heads the Quds Force, the terrorist-nurturing, insurgent-supporting expeditionary unit), and the ordinary hard-core revolutionary faithful believe the United States really is, as Khamenei puts it, “Satan Incarnate.”
From 1992 until 2005, Europeans embraced an invest-and-moderate strategy with the Islamic Republic. Although it’s certainly possible that increasing European trade helped to improve Iran’s economy in the mid-1990s, perhaps strengthening the college-educated and middle-class contempt for the regime, which in turn led to the unexpected presidential landslide in 1997 for the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, there’s no evidence whatsoever that increasing Western trade lessened Khamenei’s and the Revolutionary Guards’ attachment to revolutionary principles, especially implacable hostility towards the United States. Then, of course, in 2005, the populist, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, and the supreme leader decided to advance an “in-your-face” acceleration of the nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic is caught in a perverse evolution. The country’s youth is Westernizing. First-rate sociological studies by French scholars show that Westernization, aka “globalization,” among the children of the Iranian elite continues, undermining the “Islamic” values of first-generation revolutionaries. The supreme leader and his guards, meanwhile, have become internally more oppressive and externally no less aggressive. The brutality that Khamenei used to crush the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 harks back to the nastiness unleashed in the early revolutionary years when the regime’s guiding lights—Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Rouhani prominent among them—feared for the revolution’s future.
The “realist” dream of an Iranian version of the Chinese model, where private and state-sanctioned capitalism annihilates the revolutionary ideology, doesn’t appear to be imminent, for one simple, obvious reason: The Islamic revolution has at its white-hot core Islam as a religion and as a 1,400-year-old civilization at odds with the West. Iran’s revolutionaries have so far been able to overlay their creed onto the faith and culture, most successfully among the non-college-educated. Iran’s revolution is still fairly young: The Soviet Union’s ideology didn’t start to crack apart in Mother Russia until the 1970s, more than 50 years after it was born. And Allah in Iran is likely to outlast Marx in Europe.
If President Rouhani can actually reform Iran’s centrally planned, corrupt economy (and the tepid free-enterprise efforts of his mentor Rafsanjani in the early 1990s suggest that he will fail), the regime will likely become even more paranoid and unstable, not less, as more wealth allows more Iranians again to feed their Western desires. President Rouhani’s lack of interest in pushing any internal political reform suggests that he doesn’t believe that political and economic reforms are organically tied; rather, that the Islamic Republic’s fundamental fusion of church and state can remain the same so long as the regime is better at economics and diplomacy.
For anyone who can remember Rafsanjani’s two presidential terms (1989-97), Rouhani’s actions are not unexpected or innovative or reformist. It’s no coincidence that Iran’s improving economy under Rafsanjani also saw the launch of the regime’s nuclear-weapons quest and a much more aggressive, terrorism-fond foreign policy. In the Islamic Republic, among the pragmatic revolutionary set, there is no contradiction between avarice and the quest for nuclear weapons, or between less socialism and more terrorism against God’s enemies.
Benjamin Rhodes and his boss may actually believe that the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards are willing to forsake the nuclear program for trade, that their enmity for the United States is just the product of misunderstandings and really bad American foreign policy (George W. Bush, the CIA-aided 1953 coup d’état against Mohammad Mossadegh, and all the other things that Bill Clinton once apologized for when Washington thought Khatami might transform U.S.-Iranian relations). Candidate Obama’s speeches and radio interviews from 2007 and 2008 displayed his ignorance of Islamic and Iranian history. But for the last five years, President Obama has had access to all the classified material on the clerical regime’s nefariousness and mendacity about the nuclear program, most glaringly about the Fordow site, which the regime didn’t fess up to until September 2009, and he has had the opportunity to learn from unfolding events—his two unrequited, let’s-make-up presidential entreaties to Khamenei; the crushing of the Green Movement; Iran’s lethal actions against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thwarted terrorist strike in a Georgetown restaurant in 2011, which was approved by Quds Force officers; Tehran’s all-in support to the Assad regime in Damascus; and, last but not least, all the speeches, interviews, and books by Iran’s ruling VIPs since 2008. Yet all this may not be enough to overwhelm the president’s ideology telling him how the world ought to work and what his own historic possibilities are.
It’s hard to know, since senior administration officials give the impression that all the president wants is to escape the “binary choice” between accepting the unacceptable and launching a preemptive strike. Seeing a chance for détente between Washington and Tehran, which senior White House officials now cautiously confide might lie just beyond a successful nuclear deal, is just a “realist” reflex that ticks up when the administration runs away from hard choices and Rouhani and Zarif smilingly beckon.
Which takes us back to (1), the possibility that the economic pain from sanctions could be so intense that Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards would relent on the nuclear program. This is a highly dubious proposition—Rhodes is undoubtedly correct about Khamenei’s willingness to walk away from nuclear talks. Except economic pain is the only proposition now open to us that has any chance of convincing the supreme leader to cease and desist.
In all probability, Khamenei will walk as soon as the Western powers insist that Tehran actually make concessions that enfeeble the nuclear program—regardless of what sanctions the West piles on the regime. The Joint Plan of Action was acceptable to the supreme leader because it didn’t demand anything from Tehran that wasn’t quickly reversible. Deputy foreign minister Araghchi, an unanimated, mainstream, process-oriented, revolution-loyal diplomat, was thoughtful and precise in his description of the interim deal.
In a recent speech in the clerical headquarters city of Qom, Khamenei himself made it clear that sanctions will not break him, that the economic pain Iran is now suffering is a “joke” compared with the “crime” that “all of the great powers of the world . . . perpetrated against our nation” in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Iranian society today may be more volatile than during the war years; certainly the regime’s revolutionary base is smaller, and Khamenei knows that he is less loved, and less feared, than his predecessor. Economics has gained ground on revolutionary passion. The supreme leader assented to Rouhani’s new diplomatic offensive against the West because Rouhani argued, as he had in his nuclear memoirs: I can get you what you want with less pain; the United States and its European allies can be divided and defeated through clever diplomacy. The supreme leader wasn’t lying when he said in Qom that he hadn’t been forced to the negotiating table in Geneva; he came “to negotiate with the Devil to eliminate its evil,” to beat the Devil at his own diplomatic game.
The Obama administration will eventually have to test the proposition that Khamenei’s and the Revolutionary Guards’ will cannot be broken by economic means since the Iranian regime will give the Americans no other choice. The current nuclear negotiations will fail. The White House, which is obviously willing to bend a lot in the direction of Tehran, will most likely be unable to bend far enough to satisfy the supreme leader and his men. Even the most acquiescent of American administrations has its limits. So, too, Congress. So, too, the French, who have been trying to tell Washington that concessions now are more likely to shatter the Western alliance than are new sanctions.
We will soon see how many hawks and doves there are in Washington. Odds are, the doves are much more numerous. They’re certainly much more powerful in Obama’s Washington.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.