The old way of dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran will no longer work. The regime’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability is not only a threat to U.S. national security interests, but global peace. And merely engaging the regime and hoping for its evolution is completely unrealistic.
The regime has announced that it will no longer abide by key restrictions imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. The regime is now enriching uranium above the level allowed under the agreement and has indicated it could easily increase enrichment levels to 20%, bringing it closer to a nuclear weapons capability.
Critics have blamed the Trump administration for the regime’s belligerent behavior, not only on the nuclear issue, but also for attacks carried out on international shipping in the Persian Gulf. While the current phase of confrontation was precipitated by the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in mid-2018, the Obama administration’s Iran policy deserves much blame for the worsening international crisis.
The nuclear agreement was built on a weak foundation. While restricting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, it nevertheless contained major flaws, including dangerous sunset clauses and toleration of the regime’s ballistic missile program. Even worse, the Obama administration’s policy failed to contain and roll back the regime’s expanding regional influence, particularly in Syria and Iraq, which allowed the Islamic Republic to build a formidable military infrastructure on Israel’s northern border.
The nuclear agreement was built on a weak foundation.
But perhaps more tragically, the Obama administration did not support the 2009 massive Green Movement political uprising. A time of great vulnerability for the regime, the uprising provided the U.S. with an ideal opportunity to further undermine a deeply hated regime and gain even more U.S. leverage in nuclear negotiations. Instead, millions of Iranians protesting the fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were met with a stony silence from Washington, a decision senior Obama officials, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later said they regretted.
Encouraged by the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, Washington falsely hoped that the nuclear agreement would moderate the regime’s behavior and lead to real reform in Iran. Neither happened. Instead, Rouhani helped expand the regime’s power across the Middle East and horrific human rights abuses in Iran.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of U.S. sanctions has had a devastating impact on Iran’s economy and the regime’s ability to finance its malign activities across the Middle East. The U.S. withdrawal has put the regime in a corner in which it must choose between its destructive activities, including building up its nuclear enrichment program, or potentially face a massive revolt much like the 2009 uprising.
The regime is already the weakest and most unpopular it has ever been within Iran and throughout the Middle East. In December 2017, more than 100 Iranian cities witnessed demonstrations calling for an end to the Islamic Republic. Since then, a broad barandazan (regime overthrow) movement has emerged that not only rejects the absolute rule of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but the concept of reforms and “moderation” espoused by such figures as former President Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani. Many of the demonstrations since 2017 have even called for the return to Iran of Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, in exile since 1979.
The regime remains weak, but also quite dangerous. The march toward nuclear weapons capability and attacks on international shipping are heavy-handed attempts to gain more leverage in any possible new negotiations.
Khamenei has only one real card to play: the threat of war to scare the American public, Europe and major oil customers such as Japan into pressuring the Trump administration or a possible future Democratic administration to return to the JCPOA. Almost all of the Democratic presidential candidates have urged a U.S. return to the nuclear agreement.
But a return to the JCPOA or a new nuclear agreement that does not address sunset clauses that allow the Islamic Republic a full-scale industrial-scale enrichment program once the agreement ends; the missile program; and the regime’s malign behavior is guaranteed to fail. U.S. policy toward Iran cannot be just about the nuclear program. It must take into account 40 years of unrelenting regime hostility and the demands of the Iranian people for freedom from Khamenei’s dictatorship.
The Trump administration and its Democratic opponents would be wise to demand not only greater nuclear restrictions, but fundamental political changes entailing freedom and prosperity for all Iranians, not just a select group of Revolutionary Guards and ruling clerics. The Islamic Republic, much like the corrupt and bankrupt former Soviet Union, is destined to fail.
The U.S. has a moral duty and the strategic imperative to help Iranians in their peaceful civil disobedience campaign by providing rhetorical and material support to dissidents. The fight against the Khamenei regime’s tyranny is in principle the same as the fight against Soviet tyranny. The best deal for the United States is not a new nuclear agreement, but an entirely new Iran.
Alireza Nader is founder and chief executive of New Iran, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.