Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-N.V.) apparently has the gift of foresight denied to us lesser mortals.
“No matter how Republicans misrepresent the Iran nuclear agreement, the agreement brought about the long-sought goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” Reid said in advance of a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Washington, DC. “The agreement does nothing more, nothing less. It prevents Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”
Study those words carefully. The words “brought about” are in the past tense—they refer to something that has already occurred. Iran, Sen. Reid is suggesting, has been restrained from achieving its ambition of weaponizing its nuclear program by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed on by Iran and the Western powers back in July.
If we’re being generous, then we can at least conclude that Reid never bought into the lie still peddled by the Tehran regime that its nuclear program was always for peaceful purposes, and that any statement to the contrary is a Zionist plot to prevent the Iranians from exercising the rights that any sovereign state is entitled to. Going by Reid’s logic, the agreement was premised on the realization that Tehran’s statements cannot be taken at face value. The singular achievement of the Obama administration, therefore, was to use diplomacy to permanently shut off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon.
Time, then, for a reality check. Iran’s drive to achieve nuclear weapons is very far from being the final chapter in the history of its nuclear deceits. We have not reached the point where we can say with certainty that the JCPOA “brought about” a situation where Iran can no longer weaponize its nuclear program. Rather, Iran’s nuclear goals are still very much a part of the dangerous present in which we live, and to say that these same goals are now firmly in the past is a complacent falsehood that gives the JCPOA far more credit than it is due.
There are several reasons why this is the case, but here are two critical ones. To begin with, there is Iran’s alliance with Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime in Russia. In large part because of the Obama administration’s chronic distaste for international confrontation—even when that confrontation is forced upon us—Russia has established a genuine beachhead in the Middle East, propping up the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria and presenting itself as the natural partner of the government in Iraq. With the Russians now clearly aligned with the Shi’a crescent in the region, it naturally follows that Moscow wants to strengthen Iran’s military forces.
That’s why Moscow is supplying Iran with S-300 surface to air missiles, despite opposition from the Americans, the Saudis, and the Israelis. And there is, according to Russian officials, no going back on that deal. “The deal to supply the S-300 to Iran has not only been signed between the parties but it has already come into force,” said Sergei Chemezov, head of Russia’s Rostec arms firm, in remarks reported by the BBC.
In addition, Iran has stopped dismantling the centrifuges used to enrich uranium at two of its key nuclear sites, at Natanz and Fordow. (Fordow, you might remember, is an enrichment facility that we know about not because the Iranians declared its existence, but because Western intelligence agencies discovered it in 2009.)
According to Alireza Zakani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s commission on the nuclear deal, the dismantling was brought to a halt after hardliners complained to President Hassan Rouhani that the process directly contradicted the directives of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a man upon whom any progress on nuclear negotiations ultimately depends. Khamenei has made it crystal clear that the dismantling of centrifuges can only begin once Western powers formally acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear program has no military dimension.
On one level, all this can be seen as proof of a genuine power struggle in Iran between the “moderates” led by Rouhani, who want to create a climate for Western business to return to a post-sanctions Iran, and hardcore Islamists who regard any such compromise as a betrayal of the principles of the 1979 revolution. But on another level, one can offer a more cynical analysis; confident that the west will view him as a moderate regardless of whether or not he is one, Rouhani can conveniently blame these ostensible extremists for any obstacles in the implementation of the JCPOA. And given that Rouhani’s involvement with Iran’s nuclear program goes back a decade or more, skepticism about his real intentions remains warranted.
Once again, we are faced with the principal—arguably fatal—weakness in the Western approach to the Iranian regime ever since Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided to disregard a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran cease all enrichment activities. Put simply, that weakness is wishful thinking—believing, hoping, insisting against all the evidence that the Iranians are anxious to compromise, when every aspect of their behavior indicates otherwise.
That’s why we signed a deal even though American citizens, like Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Pastor Saeed Abedini, continue to languish in Iranian jails. Indeed, since the deal was signed, more Americans have been incarcerated in Iran. First there was Siamak Namazi, a businessman whose close ties to the pro-regime National Iranian American Council (NIAC) didn’t save him from the wrathful suspicions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls around one-third of the Iranian economy. Namazi’s arrest was soon followed by the detention of Nizar Zakka, a U.S. legal resident who was also seeking business opportunities in Iran.
No one can say for sure what led to these arrests. One theory is that this is the first salvo in an IRGC offensive against Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and other officials who played a central role in the JCPOA. Another is that the IRGC is cementing its position in anticipation of the end of Khamenei’s reign as supreme leader. Khamenei is 76 years old and suffering from ill health. Who will succeed him is unclear, which is precisely why the IRGC wants to be in the strongest possible position when that fateful day arrives.
In essence, we are dealing with what former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in comments on the eve of the 2003 Iraq war, famously called the “unknown unknowns.” Rumsfeld’s eccentric phraseology was widely lampooned at the time, but he actually illuminated a very important aspect of negotiating with rogue regimes. We cannot rely on them to tell us what they are up to, and therefore a healthy suspicion needs to be our point of departure.
Unfortunately, until November 2016, we are saddled with a leadership that is not only content to take the Iranian regime at its word, but pours venom and scorn on those of us who say that they can’t be trusted—not yesterday, not today, and not in the future. The Republicans and the many Democrats opposed to the deal must now ensure that no sanctions relief is offered to Iran as, yet again, the regime reneges on its commitments.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).