July 19, 2017 | The New York Times

On Iran, Trump Is Obama 2.0

The announcement on Sunday that Iran had sentenced Xiyue Wang, an American citizen and Princeton graduate student who was arrested last summer while doing research in the country, to 10 years in prison for being a spy for American and British intelligence, came the day before President Donald Trump was scheduled to recertify the Iran nuclear deal that President Barack Obama had reached in 2015. Mr. Trump had campaigned against the agreement; Mr. Wang’s seizure, like so many other aggressive actions that the Iranian regime has engaged in since the nuclear deal was concluded, should have, some of his supporters surely thought, obliged the White House to abandon the Iran policy advanced by his predecessor.

No such luck. And given the administration’s decision Monday to issue only minor sanctions against the Islamic Republic, while recertifying Tehran’s adherence to the atomic accord, it’s doubtful that President Trump intends to seek Mr. Wang’s release any more vigorously than had the Obama administration.

Hostage-taking — for that’s what was done to Mr. Wang — in the Islamic Republic is both statecraft and soulcraft. Hostages become pawns and condign punishment in the clerical regime’s endless duel with the West.

The odds that this 37-year-old American is an agent of Western intelligence are microscopic. The Central Intelligence Agency and European services would not use someone of Chinese descent, who sticks out like a sore thumb in Tehran, to handle recruited Iranian assets.

So why insist that he’s a spy? Part of the answer is internal Iranian politics. The judiciary, which controls Mr. Wang’s fate, takes its orders from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He and especially his praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, have had, at times, a tense relationship with President Hassan Rouhani, who has tried to check the economic power of the guards, though always unsuccessfully. Mr. Rouhani led the effort to reach a nuclear agreement with the United States. Some senior guard officers were viscerally opposed to this diplomacy, though the supreme leader consistently supported Mr. Rouhani’s efforts to get Western sanctions lifted for a temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear advance.

The 2017 presidential election in Iran was a nasty one. Mr. Rouhani and his primary opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, hurled accusations against each other about their roles in a notorious 1988 massacre of political dissidents that had been a taboo subject for members of the ruling elite. Both Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Raisi are positioning themselves for the day that the 78-year-old Mr. Khamenei, who has had cancer, dies.

Like several Americans arrested since 2012, Mr. Wang walked into this buzz saw.

But it’s not just internal score-settling that led to Mr. Wang’s imprisonment. The supreme leader, the country’s national-security institutions and most of the ruling clergy, including those allied to Mr. Rouhani, really do believe that America is waging a cultural war against Iran’s Islamist order. And for Mr. Khamenei, a scholar like Mr. Wang, a journalist like the Iranian-American Jason Rezaian and a businessman like the Iranian-American Siamak Namazi are foot soldiers of a counterrevolution. Their arrests are meant to fortify spiritually the regime’s supporters and terrify those who would challenge the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic, especially the most fundamental principle: continuing hostility against the United States.

A founding father of Iran’s feared ministry of intelligence, Mr. Rouhani has had a more relaxed attitude about the cultural war that Mr. Khamenei sees everywhere inside Iranian society. The president thinks greater freedom of expression and association are needed for economic growth. But he isn’t intellectually laissez-faire: When university students protested against censorship in 1999, the cleric publicly threatened the youths with death. Indeed, there is an intellectual no-man’s land between the two men, where hostage-taking can be seen by both as legitimate.

The United States has always been in a difficult spot in dealing with the clerical regime’s propensity for hostage-taking. Doing nothing or paying ransom just invite more abuse. American citizens should think twice about visiting Iran. But allowing another nation to have open season on American citizens is outrageous. Washington has never tried serious punishment, like blistering sanctions against the country’s banking and energy sectors. Other factors — the price of oil, the Europeans, dreams of engagement, nuclear diplomacy — always seem to get in the way. Nor has the United States had the stomach to play rough with the Revolutionary Guards: they take our citizens and yet we don’t send Delta Force to nab their senior commanders operating abroad.

Mr. Wang’s arrest certainly signals the need for a different approach. Fearfully maintaining an arms-control agreement that through sunset clauses guarantees the Islamic Republic an industrial-size uranium enrichment program isn’t how to do it. Economically or militarily, the United States needs to scare Iran’s ruling class, convince it that hostage-taking carries an unbearable price. But it seems increasingly clear that President Trump will not intimidate the mullahs.

Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.