Nuclear deal with Iran more likely to benefit hardliners than promote democratic reform
There is no clear indication that passage of the nuclear deal will empower Iranian moderates and it is just as likely that the reverse -- the deal will embolden Iranian hardliners to reassert themselves. -- will be true. Additionally, the nuclear deal will shore up the repressive Iranian regime and give it new life by freeing it from the sanctions regime.
The heroic case. Sure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is an irascible and violent revolutionary bent on imposing a dark ideology on his people and his neighborhood. Much the same could be said of Mao Zedong when Henry Kissinger paid him a visit in 1971—a diplomatic gamble that paid spectacular dividends as China became a de facto U.S. ally in the Cold War and opened up to the world under Deng Xiaoping.
But the hope that Iran is the new China fails a few tests. Mao faced an overwhelming external threat from the Soviet Union. Iran faces no such threat and is winning most of its foreign proxy wars. Beijing ratcheted down tensions with Washington with friendly table-tennis matches. Tehran ratchets them up by locking up American citizens and seizing cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz. Deng Xiaoping believed that to get rich is glorious. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, a supposed reformer, spent last Friday marching prominently in the regime’s yearly “Death to America, Death to Israel” parade.
If there is evidence of an Iranian trend toward moderation it behooves proponents of a deal to show it.
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This deal, instead, seems part of a broader policy to embrace Iran and effectively nourish its regime with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and rejuvenated trade and exports. The result will not be greater Iranian moderation, as the Administration hopes, but will be a strengthening of its regime internally and a more aggressive posture abroad. A regime guilty of some of the world’s worst human rights abuses – jailing political opponents and journalists, executing the most people per capita of any country, denying the Holocaust and threatening to annihilate Israel – and reeling from the pain of tough sanctions, will be taken out of intensive care and made healthy and immune to attack by this deal.
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The notion that Iran’s leaders will become more moderate as a result of the nuclear agreement has no basis in fact. Following the conclusion of the negotiations, Iran’s Supreme Leader again denounced the United States to cheers of Death to America. In his speech, he made clear that Iran would continue to support its allies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, and reaffirmed his support to terrorists groups dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Iran’s economy will benefit from the end of sanctions, with the likely result that the regime will be strengthened. This will enable it to continue, if not intensify, its brutal repression of all domestic opposition in the struggle for a free and democratic Iran. And with a nuclear weapons capability in waiting, Iran’s leaders will be even more secure in persecuting their domestic opponents without fear of external intervention.
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A policy of accommodation will maximize ‘blowback’ from the JCPOA, throwing the region and America’s key alliances into deep disarray. The more credible the perception is that the United States is prepared to accept and perhaps facilitate a large regional role for Iran, the more the United States will be seen as having taken the anti‐Sunni side in a widening sectarian war. Gulf states who have long considered the United States a reliable protector will see American policy as a threat to their security and will explore new policy options with potentially very dangerous consequences for stability and American interests. The gap between radical and fanatical fighting groups and militias on the one hand and governing elites in the Sunni world will compress; alignments that are unthinkable today could become quite likely if key Sunni states come to believe that the United States has chosen Iran and the Shi’a in the sectarian war. Such a course of action is also more likely to empower hardliners in Iran, as they will be able to make a plausible case that Iran has a historic opportunity to vault into the ranks of leading global powers by consolidating its power in the critical Gulf area.
American allies in the Middle East are well aware of this dynamic. This is why they have been seeking more arms and stronger political commitments from the United States as they brace for the impact of a stronger and richer Iran in the wake of this agreement. Fueling a conventional arms race in the region and making additional commitments to protect threatened states are among the consequences of this agreement; the Congress should take care to inform itself about the nature of these new commitments and engagements that the JCPOA has made necessary.
If the nuclear stand-off ends quickly in an Iranian victory, this is likely to tilt power heavily toward Iran's hardliners who will be able to impose their preferred policy options on the Iranian government. In this case a "victory" would mean that the international community was unable to agree on an approach that either forced Iran to give up its nuclear program or else inflicted such heavy penalties on them for continued recalcitrance that the public would view a stubborn continuance of the program as worse than a pyrrhic victory. In these circumstances, the hardliners will be able to claim that they were right: that the West needed them more than they needed the West (as Mr. Ahmadinejad has stated) and that they did not need to fear any diminution of European and Japanese economic ties. It will be a major victory for the hardline position, and would effectively discredit both the pragmatists and the mainstream conservatives (who sympathize with the pragmatists' concerns about the economy).
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Khatami's January 1998 interview with CNN represented a remarkable gambit, given that Iranian officials had granted only rare interviews to the U.S. press. His stunning rhetoric – he began by paying respect to the "great American people" and expressed "an intellectual affinity for American civilization" – stood in sharp contrast to a speech only days before by Khamenei, who accused the West of using "guileful propaganda tricks…to bring about instability and insecurity in the nation." However, while the bold move was intended to open new channels with the West, it closed doors at home. The interview ignited a storm of controversy within Iran, exacerbating conservative mistrust of Khatami. Conservative opposition reflected self-interest, as rapprochement with the United States would have boosted Khatami's approval ratings to stratospheric levels, as well as an ideology that equated regime orthodoxy with regime survival. Two weeks after the CNN interview, after a muted response from Washington, Khatami spoke about the United States in much more strident terms in an address before the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, and on a subsequent visit to the United Nations suggested that the interview had been "misinterpreted" and asked Americans "not to confuse a dialogue among people and cultures with political dialogue." For much of the rest of his presidency, Khatami and the reformists focused their attentions on mending other breaches in Iran's international relations, and took relatively few concrete actions to reach out to Washington or respond to the belated overtures mounted by the Clinton administration two years later.
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The most compelling reason for avoiding a "grand bargain" with Tehran, however, has to do with the Iranians themselves. The Islamic Republic is in the throes of a massive demographic transition. According to official regime statistics, nearly half of Iran's population of 70 million is aged 24 or younger. And this constituency, deeply disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution, is largely Western-looking in orientation. The country's current ruling elite, by contrast, is aging and ill, lacking serious popular support from the Iranian "street." Under these circumstances, a deal with the current leadership could well yield tactical, short-term benefits. But the long-term cost would be enormous: the alienation of Iran's young, pro-Western population, a vibrant constituency that will ultimately determine that country's political dispositions.
Rouhani was chosen and vetted by a process overseen by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds true power. Despite winning by a landslide, with a popular mandate for reform, Rouhani has delivered no real change. The much-expected Iranian “glasnost”—the “openness” under Mikhail Gorbachev that signaled real change in the Soviet Union—has not materialized. Rouhani has issued some vague calls for referendums, without saying what exactly would be put to vote. He has made veiled criticisms of the Revolutionary Guards, but hasprotected them from anti-corruption campaigns. While he (along with Khamenei) uses social media like Twitter to communicate with audiences outside Iran, he has not extended that freedom to his own countrymen.
Rouhani’s apologists his efforts at reforms have been stymied by the hardliners, and that a nuclear deal will give him the ammunition to make those reforms real. But it strains credulity that a deal with the West will allow the president to do what what a landfall election win did not.
The hardliners have their own thoughts about a nuclear deal. If they have toned down some of their previous criticism of the negotiations, that is likely because, as the New York Times points out, “a general satisfaction… with the direction of the talks, and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.” The Supreme Leader himself has been, as is his wont, having it both ways, allowing the negotiations to proceed while calling for “Death to America.”
Rather than empower Rouhani and the reformists, a nuclear deal will mean they are of no further use to the conservatives, and ripe for toppling—or at least shoving aside. There are indications that the conservatives are shoring up their control of the country, most notably by electing one of their own to the council that will name a new Supreme Leader when Khamenei dies. Not only was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a former president—and nominally a reformist—denied the post, his son was sentenced to 15 years for corruption and embezzlement. It was a chilling reminder of who’s really in charge in Tehran.
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To be sure, a nuclear deal, or a de facto international recognition of Iran’s nuclear latency, might strengthen Rouhani and other relative moderates within Iran’s theocratic system in relation to hardliners. Given the current instability in the Middle East and the unfulfilled promise of the Arab uprising in many countries, there are many in Washington who would be satisfied with a moderating Iran and who would fear the potential chaos unleashed by a regime change in Iran. Still, an unstated long-term goal of many senior US officials and security analysts is not just the moderation of the current theocratic government but the ushering in of a different, more democratic system altogether. For the reasons discussed above, a latent nuclear Iran could potentially push that day off further into the future. The nuclear issue is probably not among the most important determinants of this regime’s hold on power, but, to the degree that it matters, nuclear latency could serve to extend the clerics’ reign.
For some, the greatest value in an agreement lies in the prospect of an end, or at least a moderation, of Iran’s 3½ decades of militant hostility to the West and established international institutions, and an opportunity to draw Iran into an effort to stabilize the Middle East. Having both served in government during a period of American-Iranian strategic alignment and experienced its benefits for both countries as well as the Middle East, we would greatly welcome such an outcome. Iran is a significant national state with a historic culture, a fierce national identity, and a relatively youthful, educated population; its re-emergence as a partner would be a consequential event.
But partnership in what task? Cooperation is not an exercise in good feeling; it presupposes congruent definitions of stability. There exists no current evidence that Iran and the U.S. are remotely near such an understanding. Even while combating common enemies, such as ISIS, Iran has declined to embrace common objectives. Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means.
The final stages of the nuclear talks have coincided with Iran’s intensified efforts to expand and entrench its power in neighboring states. Iranian or Iranian client forces are now the pre-eminent military or political element in multiple Arab countries, operating beyond the control of national authorities. With the recent addition of Yemen as a battlefield, Tehran occupies positions along all of the Middle East’s strategic waterways and encircles archrival Saudi Arabia, an American ally. Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts.
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