Beware of Talking to Mullahs

Beware of Talking to Mullahs

Why now is not the time to hammer out an agreement on Iran's nuclear program.


 Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, U.S. presidents have talked about restoring U.S.-Iranian relations, albeit on American terms. While U.S. administrations have had a number of reasons for rapprochement, the prevention of Iranian nuclear weapons has become the primary concern since the discovery of Iran’s covert nuclear activities. To maintain pressure on Iran, sanctions have been tightened, albeit halfheartedly, with the goal of extracting an agreement. Today, the United States is at a critical crossroads in its relations with Iran. Talking to the Tehran regime later this month and possibly signing an agreement will have consequences that go far beyond what the U.S. administration has publicly acknowledged.

The focus on a nuclear-enrichment agreement with Iran has been based on three false assumptions:


-An agreement would afford sufficient benefits to the clerical regime that would encourage it to honor its commitments

-The Iranian people would support an agreement, strengthening America’s position in Iranian hearts and minds

-The nuclear issue is the overriding strategic concern for the United States and an agreement with the clerics serves America’s interests

What good is talking and signing an agreement with a fox to guard the chicken coop? None, as long as the farmer wants to keep his chickens and the fox wants to eat them.

So it is with the mullahs. The mullahs have no interest in abandoning their atomic goal. From day one, they have seen America as their existential threat and have believed that the key to their survival was nuclear capabilities; once acquired, Iran would be “theirs” for the foreseeable future. For now they can sign a piece of paper to get the relief that they desperately need, the lifting of some sanctions, while secretly continuing with their program and meddling in the region to pressure the United States. They know full well that: sanctions when lifted would, for many reasons, take time to reinstate; and lifting sanctions would afford them breathing room until their other covert nuclear programs are discovered. In short, they have little to lose by talking, bargaining and signing onto an agreement, and everything to gain by continuing their nuclear program.

The clerical regime will not honor an agreement to abandon its atomic quest. Moreover, these are the same mullahs who declare that they are Allah’s spokesmen on earth, while they are corrupt, fail to deliver normal economic benefits to their people, kill peaceful demonstrators and rule by the barrel of a gun. Their behavior has become so un-Islamic and odious that many devout clerics have jumped ship. If they defy Allah so, will they honor an agreement with the United States—the Great Satan? An agreement with the mullahs is worthless.

While a significant percentage of Iranians might be happy to see an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, they would in short order realize, if they haven’t already, that an agreement will in all likelihood strengthen the mullahs, enabling them to develop a nuclear deterrent. Once they have that, Iranians will be under the yoke of the clerics for decades, if not centuries. Will the Iranian public then appreciate U.S. cooperation with the mullahs? In the short run, maybe, but in the long term, no. Iranians will see an agreement for what it is—U.S. naiveté in trusting the government in Tehran when it openly betrays its own citizens. U.S. problems in Afghanistan and Iraq trump human rights and democratic ideals. With the passage of time, Iranians will not be kind to a U.S.-mullah accord as America legitimizes their rule.

The United States sees Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat because of the nature and behavior of the regime. Under the shah, Washington and the European allies supported nuclear power plants for Iran, France even entered into a nuclear partnership with Iran and in all likelihood America would have supported low-level enrichment. An agreement, on enrichment or on Afghanistan and Iraq, will be honored only as long as it serves the interest of the clerics, otherwise all bets are off. The atomic issue is not America’s central problem with Iran, the regime is the problem, a fact that America must painfully acknowledge and so reorient its strategic interests.

The United States should do all it can to support a popular movement for change in Iran, a movement that allows Iranians to: (1) revisit their constitution, which they voted for in the heat of the revolution, a time when citizens historically have had to go along with the revolutionary regime to stay alive; it is a constitution that today cannot even be debated without risking arrest, imprisonment and even death; (2) hold free elections; and (3) exercise their basic human rights. With these changes, Iran would have a regime that respects its citizens and poses little danger to its neighbors. An Iranian constitution that is freely adopted and a government that represents the will and aspirations of the people best serve America’s long-term strategic interests.

Is this the time to talk to Iran and get an agreement? No.

As fines on those who defy sanctions have been assessed and are slowly taking a toll, Washington can talk all it wants with the mullahs, but concede nothing and adopt a different approach to bring them to heel. Sanctions should be reenforced and expanded: fines should be applied more widely (especially on South Korean, Malaysian and Turkish firms), liberally and immediately, the central bank of Iran should be sanctioned, the foreign bank accounts of all residents the country in excess of a certain size, say $1 million or $5 million, should be frozen, and the U.S. Treasury should adopt measures to promote a run on the Iranian rial. Washington and its allies should refocus their strategic objectives: publicize and question the regime’s religious credentials and also the damage done to Shia Islam, its human rights record, its corruption, and its ability to deliver prosperity and hope for Iranians. The United States has never exerted sufficient pressure on the Tehran regime. This combination of measures could very well sweep it away. By adopting this approach, America would achieve a number of important goals: it would be seen in a positive light by most Iranians; it would give succor to all those who oppose the regime to continue their struggle knowing that they will not be abandoned as were the Shia in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War; and it would allow recalibration of its sanctions policy and strategic objectives away from Iran’s nuclear program to supporting the opposition in order to get rid of the clerical regime. Now that sanctions are beginning to take effect, this is not the time to accommodate the mullahs; it is, instead, time to support those in opposition by adopting more thoughtful and focused pressure on Iran’s rulers.


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