August 4, 2021 | The Wall Street Journal

A Breakout Moment for a New Approach to Iran

Neither arms control nor military force is realistic. What would a more practical policy look like?
August 4, 2021 | The Wall Street Journal

A Breakout Moment for a New Approach to Iran

Neither arms control nor military force is realistic. What would a more practical policy look like?

Mohammad Khatami, an affable, intellectual cleric who believed in the Islamic revolution but wanted more humanity and democracy in government, unexpectedly won the Iranian presidential election on May 23, 1997. His victory marked the beginning of the Western left’s conviction that the clerical regime was evolving into a less religious and oppressive system.

But that isn’t panning out. Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric renowned for his ruthlessness, became president this week and is the apparent successor to Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. Joe Biden may be forced to answer a question presidents have preferred to avoid: Would Washington use force to stop the development of Iranian nuclear weapons? American presidents since 2002, when the Islamic Republic’s clandestine atomic program was revealed, have declared that Iran’s possessing such arms is unacceptable.

President Biden appears unprepared to unleash the U.S. Air Force, and the administration can’t plausibly argue that opening up more trade hurts the theocracy’s aggressive, Islamist ambitions. This leaves few options beyond economic penalties. The White House probably doesn’t appreciate the irony of its now reportedly contemplating leveling more sanctions on Tehran to coerce Mr. Khamenei to re-enter the nuclear deal, after Mr. Biden and his Iran team derided the sanctions diplomacy of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with its sunset clauses and nonchalance about aggressive inspections, made sense as an arms-control agreement if the accord was merely one step in a process. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has, in his own way, stated exactly this, endorsing the need to make the agreement “longer, stronger, broader.” That wouldn’t be necessary if the JCPOA actually stopped, as former Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “all pathways” to the bomb and did something about the theocracy’s ballistic missiles and imperialism.

Messrs. Raisi and Khamenei have made it crystal clear, however, there will be no follow-on talks. By rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, Washington would at best be giving tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to the clerical regime for a short-term fix. Iran has already started building advanced centrifuges; with the JCPOA, Tehran can build 400 advanced machines in two years and put rotors into them in four. Even as a mechanism to kick the can down the road, the nuclear deal no longer makes much sense.

It would be less strategically damning, and probably more intellectually honest, for Mr. Biden and his senior advisers to admit, at least to themselves, that the White House isn’t going to stop Tehran from getting the bomb—barring an outrageous Iranian misstep that provokes the U.S. to attack. Admitting that neither diplomacy nor war is an option for this administration would free Washington from being extorted. It would allow Mr. Biden to advance a far more moral and practical foreign policy against an egregious human-rights-violating regime that has spread sectarian conflict throughout the Middle East.

Letting go of arms control won’t be easy for a Democratic president, but it wouldn’t necessarily be politically dangerous. In 2015, when President Obama lambasted those who opposed the deal as warmongers, many Republicans dodged the issue of using force, preferring to stress the need for coercive diplomacy and a “good” deal. Today, many on the right appear to want to pass responsibility for militarily thwarting Tehran’s atomic aspirations to the Israelis, who surely would prefer that Washington retain that burden.

If the Biden administration walked away from counterproductive diplomacy and challenged the GOP to do something beyond the sanctions the White House would keep, it would force Republicans to debate what they really are prepared to do to stop nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf.

Without arms control dictating policy, a new bipartisan consensus—focused on human rights and support to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people—might develop. Republicans who tried to argue against such moralistic interventionism or who said, à la Mr. Trump, that they could deliver a better deal would seem short-sighted and naive—a nice jujitsu move for Democrats. The left could play to history: As the Soviet Union discovered, possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t stop dictatorial rot or the allure of freedom.

The president could handle the progressive left, which is deeply uncomfortable with most measures against Iran. Keeping sanctions on a theocracy that is directly complicit in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the dislocation of millions of civilians in Syria surely isn’t a political loser. Since sanctions became serious in 2018, Iran has seen major demonstrations without protesters venting against America. The clerical regime views these protests as potential rebellions; we should, too.

The Biden administration says it wants to amp up the U.S. commitment to democratic values abroad. The biggest potential return on investment is in Iran. Mr. Khamenei’s selection of Mr. Raisi should tell the White House it has nothing now to lose by trying.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”


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