The Magazine

Faith-Based Negotiations

When liberals meet mullahs

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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.” 

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