Plan to Aid Iranian
Moderates Failed Spectacularly
By Eli Lake
February 25, 2016
Remember when the nuclear deal
with Iran had a chance to strengthen
the country's moderates? Jeb Bush was the Republican presidential
front-runner. Fetty Wap ruled the charts. Serena Williams nearly won the Grand
Slam of Women's Tennis. 2015. What a year.
You don't really hear this line
any more from President Barack Obama. To understand why, consider Friday's
elections in Iran. In theory, Iranians will be choosing members of their
parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a panel of Islamic scholars who will
choose the country's next supreme leader, who controls Iran's foreign policy and
With most sanctions lifted, the
nuclear deal is popular in Iran. So this should be a golden opportunity for
Iran's relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to consolidate his power.
But this is Iran.
Beginning in January, the regime's
Guardian Council began purging
any candidates who espoused the slightest deviation from the country's
septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Candidates who favored releasing
political prisoners -- including the leaders of the Green Movement that many
Iranians feel won the 2009 presidential elections -- were disqualified. Even
members of the Assembly of Experts, who had previously passed the vetting
process, were disqualified. So too was the grandson of Iran's first supreme
leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To paraphrase a former top U.S. negotiator
in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, Iranians on Friday will have a choice between
hardliners and hard hardliners.
This counts as a failure of U.S.
policy. To be sure, Obama has said repeatedly that the Iran nuclear deal does
not depend on changes in the nature of the regime. But nonetheless, he sought to
empower Rouhani's moderates against the supreme leader and his hardliners.
This administration policy began
almost as soon as Rouhani himself was elected. After he won the presidency in
June 2013, the Treasury Department paused the process for blacklisting
front companies and other Iranian concerns targeted by sanctions.
More recently, U.S. and European
diplomats worked hard to speed up the implementation of the nuclear agreement so
that it occurred before Friday's elections. A policy
memo prepared by the State Department on the legal justification for
overriding visa requirements for people who have traveled to Iran since 2011,
says explicitly that the new law undermined a U.S. national interest of
"Iran moderating politically over time."
Over the summer, Obama expressed
guarded optimism that the nuclear deal would open up new possibilities for
Iran's moderates. He told NPR that one possible consequence of engaging in
nuclear talks is that "Iran starts making different decisions that are less
offensive to its neighbors; that it tones down the rhetoric in terms of its
virulent opposition to Israel."
He had previously
said that, after agreement on a nuclear deal, "my hope would be that
that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over
This is not how things have worked
out. Instead, the fanatics who run Iran have been more bellicose than ever. They
have taken two more Iranian-Americans prisoner; detained
and humiliated U.S. Navy sailors; tested new missiles and arrested more
human rights activists. Just this week Iran's state-run Fars news agency renewed
the bounty on the head of novelist Salman Rushdie.
Defenders of the deal tell us that
these provocations are really aimed at undermining Rouhani, who has tried his
best to alleviate the strain on his country's economy and civil society. This
presumes that different forces in Iran are vying for power and that Iran's long
term trajectory is up for grabs.
But this misses an important
point. The purges are part of a longer pattern that show the hardliners are not
so much interested in gaining political advantage but in eliminating any
political competition at all. The Iranian reformers who briefly came into power
in the late 1990s and early 2000s are today completely marginalized, exiled or
To understand the degree of Iran's
political stagnation, consider this bit of history. When Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani was president of Iran in the 1990s, the journalist Akbar Ganji
documented Rafsanjani's role in the murder of dissidents and intellectuals. In
2013, Ganji -- who is himself living in exile -- endorsed Rafsanjani for the
presidency, in part because the choices were already so narrowed by the
unelected part of the Iranian state.
And so it is today. Despite the
humiliation of the electoral purges, Rouhani has encouraged Iranians to vote
nonetheless. He has long given up on his promises to release political prisoners
or address human rights. If Rouhani is lucky, he will only have to contend with
hardliners in the parliament, as opposed to the "hard-hardliners." But
the chance to deliver on the promise of political change that Obama hoped he
could deliver has evaporated, particularly since the assembly of experts will
end up being stacked with reactionaries.
All of this brings us back to the
nuclear deal. Despite what Obama says, the only way it can be considered a
success is if, over time, Iran really does undergo reform and its leaders
abandon the revolution that threatens the rest of the Middle East.
This is because the limits on
Iran's nuclear program will expire in 10 to 20 years, after the nation will have
had a chance to rebuild its economy and modernize its military. If the
hostage-taking terror enthusiasts who run Iran today are in charge of the
country when that day comes, then Obama's nuclear negotiations will be revealed
to have been little more than a shake down.