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).