Media Op-Ed

Iran nuclear agreement: It’s now or never for a better deal

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August 15, 2015

Consider this: The Iran nuclear negotiations that concluded July 14 with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did not begin in 2013 after the election of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani. Rather, they began under the adversarial presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The ayatollah, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, recently acknowledged this as he attempted to encourage Iranians to maintain and extend the country’s combative relationship with the United States. His subordinates have followed suit. Iranian Brigadier Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi famously welcomed the nuclear agreement by saying that Iranians should hate the United States “100 times more” because of it.

The weakness that brought Iran to the table and compelled it to sign an ineffectual agreement could also compel it to remove its enrichment infrastructure and end the issue of a nuclear Iran once and for all.

The notion that Iran’s former firebrand president started the country on the path to this deal might seem to support the idea that the negotiations were only part of the never-ending conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

But recognizing this fact does little to explain why a belligerent regime would have begun negotiations with a country it hates in the first place. And this is why it is important that U.S. policymakers stop ignoring the question of when Iran started on this pathway.

The Obama administration sees Iran as a regime that is potentially on the road to internal reform and potentially a partner in Middle Eastern affairs. That narrative does a great deal to justify the administration’s weak position in the now-concluded negotiations. It explains the administration’s drastic concessions on the basis that it was taking advantage of a narrow window of opportunity to negotiate with a “moderate” leader in the form of President Rouhani.

But the Obama administration’s narrative is a false one, given the fact that the Iranian policy of dialogue had begun well before the more pragmatic Iranian president ever came to power. This explains why the Iranian regime came to the negotiating table, and that makes the Obama administration’s strategy in those negotiations naïve at best.

The administration would like Americans to believe that while economic sanctions forced Iran to open up dialogue, it was also willing to do so because the government had become more receptive to foreign voices.

But in fact, whether Rouhani is any less anti-American than Ahmadinejad, the point is irrelevant. By the time of the 2013 elections, the sanctions had already forced a change of policy in Iran. The sanctions were the only factor that mattered.

What this means for Western policy is that the Obama administration didn’t exploit the blue-moon opportunity of a moderate Iranian presidency; it squandered an opportunity that decent Western policy had created over a period of years.

If even the staunchly anti-American Khamenei and Ahmadinejad were willing to talk to the U.S. after their country’s economy had been effectively crippled, imagine what could have been accomplished if the U.S. had taken an assertive stance instead of offering a series of concessions.

Any agreement at all would have been a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime. And indeed the current one is, by virtue of scaling back some of Khamenei’s stated red lines.

But the regime’s willingness to sign the existing agreement only demonstrates the weak position that it was in when it faced the persistence of economic sanctions alongside growing Arab resistance to its regional machinations — as well as domestic resistance from an organized opposition and a restive, pro-democracy population.

Far from taking advantage of any of this, we have now arranged to give away hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to a regime that has not changed in any meaningful way since the bellicose days of Ahmadinejad.

This is why Congress cannot allow the deal to go forward as planned. We were heartened to see that our senator, Mark Warner, insisted that he “will pay close attention to the dismantling of Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program; ensuring an intrusive and reliable verification process; and ensuring a graduated process of sanctions relief entirely dependent upon Iran’s compliance.”

Is should be noted that the weakness that brought Iran to the table and compelled it to sign an ineffectual agreement could also compel it to remove its enrichment infrastructure and end the issue of a nuclear Iran once and for all.

It doesn’t matter who occupies the Iranian presidency. Policy is set not by the president but by the ruling clerics, and it is set largely according to the economic, diplomatic and political threats that are currently posed to the continued existence of the regime.

Tehran is in a vulnerable position. That should have been what the Obama administration acknowledged, not vain hope for “moderation” of the regime.

Phillip Choobin is president of the Iranian-American Community of Virginia, a member of the Organization of Iranian-American Communities (OIAC-US).

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