When liberals meet mullahs
Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
It’s impossible to find a Western parallel to the rahbar, the “supreme leader” of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to that regime’s particular fusion of church and state. The caesaropapism of a Byzantine emperor, even one as religiously determined as Justinian, or a pope as imperial as Gregory VII, who humbled an emperor at Canossa, just doesn’t capture the revolutionary, quintessentially modern nature of the rahbar. Following in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei tries to steal the charisma attached to Shiism’s magical imams and fuse it to the raw, coercive power of a twentieth-century totalitarian dictator. Like his predecessor as supreme leader, Khamenei sees Islam as under siege from the West, and especially the United States. “In the military, political, and economic wars, in every arena where there is a test of strength, you, the believer, must stand firm against the enemy [the United States], your will must overcome the determination of the enemy,” he told his militant audience at the Grand Mosque the day the Geneva nuclear negotiations began. And in this arduous and awesome struggle, the believer can use “heroic flexibility,” he said, which doesn’t mean “abandoning the ideals and aims of the Islamic regime,” but rather “clever, artful maneuvering that allows for the believer to achieve his goals.” “Step by step” the believer advances, as did the followers of the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Badr, who were outmanned and underarmed, but proved triumphant and divided the spoils of their routed foe.
Here is perhaps the biggest contradiction of the nuclear talks: The Obama administration wants to believe that the supreme leader just might forsake his historic mission—the quest for nuclear weapons begun under Khomeini and carried forth at great cost by Khamenei and every single Iranian president—because the United States, “the epicenter of evil,” has rallied the West against the Islamic Republic. The reasons administration officials give for why this extraordinary tergiversation will take place vary, but most spin around the idea that the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guards—who oversee the nuclear program, terrorist operations, and domestic riot-control—really aren’t sufficiently committed to developing a nuclear weapon that the forces of moderation can’t seduce them from this dangerous course. The alleged forces of moderation are, in order of importance, newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, foreign minister Mohammad Zarif, and the Iranian people, at least those who voted for Rouhani.
Those who make these arguments, inside the U.S. government and out, rarely cite any primary material. Yet there is much to ponder in the lengthy speeches of Khamenei and senior guard commanders who scorch America and the West with nearly every breath; in the nuclear memoirs of Rouhani, which reveals a proud revolutionary determined to keep and advance the nuclear program despite European pressure (and, a decade ago, a widespread fear of George W. Bush); and in the recently published memoirs of Zarif, which limn a deeply conservative man wedded to the Islamic Revolution. In an odd twist on Iran’s controlled democracy, administration officials can tell you that since Rouhani received a mandate for change, and since he has promised to get rid of the hated sanctions, then ipso facto he must be prepared to do the thing necessary to achieve that end: Rouhani, they conclude, intends to roll back Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
Rouhani, they believe, must be more or less a moderate—a talented, politically savvy insider, not an egghead reformer like the former president Mohammad Khatami, whom Khamenei and his minions sliced and diced. He is, after all, not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the uncouth, pietistic populist. He has a Ph.D. from a Scottish university (think Duns Scotus, David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, and Gordon Brown).
This is such a nonsensical take on Iran’s deeply religious and ruthless power politics, and Rouhani’s personal voyage through the Islamic Revolution, that it’s hard to know where to start deconstructing the fiction and illogic. Suffice it to say that Khamenei has spent considerable energy the last four years destroying the threat of democracy inside his country. He has so elevated the Revolutionary Guards that their power rivals his own. He has given no indication that he now quakes before the very people he’s squashed. Neither, by the way, does Rouhani, who raised not a finger in protest when Khamenei gutted the pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 and playfully eviscerated Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former clerical powerhouse, the true father of the regime’s nuclear-weapons program, and Rouhani’s primary mentor.
The Islamic Republic’s president, moreover, has given no indication that he isn’t still using the same playbook that he deployed against the European Union and the United States in 2003, when many in Tehran seriously feared that President Bush might eliminate one more member of the axis of evil. The six-month nuclear deal struck on November 24—supposedly the prelude to a more definitive pact—compromises nothing that cannot be easily reversed. Rouhani appears to be aiming again to gain time and money to advance the nuclear program—especially its hidden parts, which probably need more experimentation and cash. In 2003, his priority was centrifuge design and manufacturing, heavy-water reactor research, and a more deeply buried, bomb-resistant enrichment facility (Fordow). In 2013, it’s probably ballistic-missile weaponization, advanced-centrifuge manufacturing, and smaller, more-difficult-to-detect cascade sites, where a thousand advanced centrifuges could take the regime quietly beyond an undetectable breakout capacity.
It’s a perverse twist in the administration’s agreement to provide limited sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for a six-month partial pause: Hard currency frozen by sanctions in overseas bank accounts will soon be transferred back to Tehran, where it can be used freely by the regime to support nuclear research, dual-use imports, ballistic missile development, and clandestine centrifuge manufacturing. As of now, all of Iran’s centrifuges are manufactured at unknown, unmonitored sites; no access has so far been granted to the engineering personnel who could guarantee that the West knows the number and locations of all centrifuge production facilities and determine how the regime has avoided the West’s elaborate net to catch nuclear dual-use imports.
One would have thought this belonged in the first stage of any Geneva deal, since it will take months, probably years, to determine whether the regime is doing with centrifuge manufacturing what it has continuously done with the entire nuclear program since the 1980s: lie. One must assume that Khamenei is going to use the West’s hard-currency relief, too, to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, easily Tehran’s most important and expensive military adventure, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the always- faithful Arab child of a very Persian Islamic Revolution. Yet the Brookings Institution scholar Ken Pollack, who has sometimes been sharply at odds with the administration on the Middle East, has called criticism of the Geneva deal “specious or tautological, or [afflicted by] … the kind of tenuous conspiracy thinking that we disparage when it comes from the Iranians.”
But a basic understanding of international trade, a bit of common sense, and a quick glance at how the administration has conducted foreign policy in the region might make one skeptical about President Obama’s achievement in Switzerland. Every billion in hard currency counts, especially abroad, where Iran’s accessible hard-currency reserves are only around $20 billion. Even the administration’s dubious figure for sanctions relief—$7 billion over six months—is a lot of money for the Islamic Republic, which has probably burned up several billion dollars in Syria since Damascus’s savage dictatorship almost cratered last year. If that $7 billon figure is low, then the aid that President Obama has now given the mullahs is far from paltry. Anyone who has tracked how the administration calculated its gold-trading offer to the Iranians at the nuclear negotiations in Almaty in February and April 2013 (Turkish customs data clearly show that Iran pocketed $6 billion in a U.S. sanctions loophole; the administration claims it gave away nothing to Tehran) cannot be sanguine that the White House has any firm idea of how international commercial markets operate. Rouhani’s post-Geneva bragging about “breaking” the West’s sanctions regime is probably premature. But given his plausible assertion in his memoir that it was he who cleverly protected Iran’s nuclear program in 2003, one might want to give the cleric a bit more time before damning him as “specious.”
At the core of Washington’s debate about Iran’s nuclear program is a confluence of naïveté and fear of another war in the Middle East. The latter reinforces the former and bends the analysis of Iran’s internal politics. It makes America’s foreign policy elite, which has never been a particularly God-fearing crowd, even more blind to the role of religion in Iran’s politics. The president himself appears to believe passionately that an irenic American foreign policy insulates the United States from Muslim anger and terrorism. Yet who knows for sure whether Barack Obama has the will to preempt Tehran’s nuclear program militarily? If Khamenei got caught enriching uranium to bomb-grade or kicked IAEA inspectors out of the country, the president might strike. Even the president’s omnipresent desire to pivot the United States away from any region of conflict might not be enough to stop him from launching preemptive raids against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites. The closer we get to an Iranian breakout capacity, the more serious Washington’s deliberations on the ramifications of an Iranian nuke become. The most deadly and probably the most powerful man in uniform is Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the paramilitary and terrorist expeditionary unit within the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who unquestionably authorized the plan to bomb the Saudi ambassador in a Georgetown restaurant in 2011. Imagining Suleimani with atomic weapons is appreciably more disturbing than imagining Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Kim Jong-un with a nuke.
No one in the Middle East, however, believes that Obama would strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in particular revel in mocking the president’s occasional “all-options-are-on-the-table” rhetoric. The left-wing base of the Democratic party certainly doesn’t think the president will lead America into another war. Mention Obama’s pledge to take out Tehran’s nuclear sites to the nonproliferation soldiers at the Ploughshares Fund and they yawn or snicker. The only man in Washington who may still seriously believe that Obama retains the requisite bellicosity after his red-line debacle in Syria is Dennis Ross, the president’s former Middle Eastern adviser and über Israeli-Palestinian peace-processor, whose capacity for perseverance and faith in the darkest circumstances is unparalleled.
Much of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, especially that residing in influential left-of-center think tanks, long ago conceded the bomb to Iran. Pollack’s new book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, advances an argument for containment, a position he has held for years. For those who want to default to containment, any diplomatic path will take them there. It doesn’t really matter whether Geneva is a good deal or bad one; the only thing that matters is that we not bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. And for most on the left—who unlike Pollack don’t envision any need for a militarily strong and aggressive United States pushing back against Iranian adventurism—containment has become a synonym for patient, peaceful engagement and American withdrawal. (The crippling weakness of Pollack’s grand strategy is that it presupposes tough Democrats and Republicans guiding American foreign policy; but the toughness necessary for containment is no less than that required for preemption.)
President Obama’s heart and mind are, in all probability, in the same orbit as those of the nonproliferation crowd, who really liked nuclear nonproliferation so long as the United States was disarming and Washington didn’t have to go to war to stop a third-world country from going nuclear. The president’s post-Geneva stop-the-“endless cycle of violence” speeches certainly make one think that Obama will fold when Khamenei’s men have made it crystal clear that nuclear rollback isn’t an option. Ramping up sanctions globally—recapturing the momentum that Congress and the European Union had built by ever-escalating sanctions—will likely prove much more difficult than the White House now thinks. The all-important psychology of escalating sanctions, and the increasing American willpower that produced them, will soon be replaced by a spirit of compromise and, among foreign businesses, greed and a new resolve to test the administration’s willingness to punish companies, especially European and Chinese firms, that violate U.S. sanctions.
European unity on Iran has always been in part a function of fear of American and Israeli preemptive military action. Fear of Israel has dissipated in Europe. In Paris, London, and Berlin, few now have much regard for—let alone fear of—President Obama. In the White House, transatlantic relations have become an afterthought, as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius made furiously clear during the first round in Geneva. And without crippling sanctions, Washington will have no real leverage left over the Iranian regime. President Obama’s eagerness to avoid an unpleasant binary choice—surrender publicly to Tehran’s nuclear fait accompli or preempt militarily—will have led him to a situation where he confronts the same choice, but with Iran’s hand stronger and America’s weaker. Khamenei will have called Obama’s bluff—and will have billions more in his bank account. In all probability, the president has bought into a process of diminishing returns that he cannot abandon for fear of the cruel binary choice. For that matter, he may already have decided that the left wing of the Democratic party is right: Better Khamenei and Suleimani with a nuke than America in conflict. The odds are, he has.
In about six months’ time, Khamenei’s “step-by-step” counsel to his most loyal followers may well prove prescient. His loyal servant Rouhani, who jumped off Rafsanjani’s sinking ship in 2005 for a stronger alliance with the supreme leader, will have again proven that Western-educated Iranians with decent English can do wonders with Americans. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, when asked about Khamenei’s November 20 speech at Khomeini’s Grand Mosque, remarked that “comments like these are not helpful, but we still believe that both sides are negotiating in good faith.” More than she probably knew, Ms. Psaki was right.
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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