The election of the cleric Shia Mujtahid Hassan Rouhani is the perfect Iranian move in a nuclear chess match where Iran seems to be consistently outmaneuvering the United States. After all, the Persians were among the first to introduce chess to the world in the 10th Century. Rouhani gives the regime just enough façade of goodwill to drag on the never-ending negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, now spanning over a decade, while Iran sails full steam to a nuclear weapon capability. Lest there be any mistake about Mr. Rouhani’s ability to change Iran’s policy, Ayatollah Khamenei still holds ultimate power over the nation’s nuclear program. Majlis member Sharif Husseini warned “nothing would change” in Iran’s nuclear policies. For all the talk of his “reformist” leanings, Mr. Rouhani is responsible for much of the progress of the nuclear program while he served as chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami. As he reflected in 2004, “while we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan,” a critical Iranian nuclear facility.
Iran can use relief from the prospect of even more strict sanctions, while buying time to complete its nuclear project. Rouhani is the perfect answer. Sanctions are having a severe impact on the Iranian economy, inducing double-digit inflation, unemployment and poverty, the largest deficit in over a decade and shrinking GDP. Yet, despite increasingly painful sanctions, successful covert operations against Iranian scientists and facilities, and unending diplomacy, Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapons capability and is unwavering in its commitment—by word and deed—to cross the nuclear finish line. Sanctions are painful, but tolerable. A full economic embargo by the U.S. will not be.
An understanding of Iran’s individual leaders, domestic politics, history and geo-politics reveal that the Iranian regime has two critical strategic interests via vie the West: nuclear weapons capability and continued animosity with the West. These interests are only outweighed by the regime’s survival. Thus, the regime will stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons only on the brink of its collapse, which may likely come about through a full economic embargo, or military force (an option not politically practical and militarily much more challenging than Iraq).
Iran’s leaders are indeed rational, as many analysts like to argue. What analysts fail to understand or hear—from repeated announcements by Iranian leaders—is the regime’s strategic interest of obtaining a bomb while maintaining the ideological war against the “Great Satan.” With these goals, it is perfectly rational for Iran to drag on “negotiations” until nuclear weapons are acquired in the face of sanctions because both the nukes and hostility are in Iran’s interests.
Nukes guarantee regime survival while Iran pursues its critical regional interest of exporting the revolution and solidifying its hegemonic role in the Middle East. After all, the export of the Iranian Revolution and velayat-e-faqih was the raison d’etre for the clerical regime. “Reformist” Rouhani said it best: “if one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice — that we do possess the technology — then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.” So to Rouhani and the regime, a nuclear weapon means the world must work with an Iran that sponsors terrorist groups, violates the human rights of its citizens and destabilizes the region.
The current sanctions, while painful, are manageable, and keep the flames of Iran-U.S. hostilities—and the revolution—burning. And once Iran reaches a nuclear weapon capability, the rationale for sanctions decreases, as they ultimately hurt the population and will not remove a nuclear-armed regime that will use brutal force to quell domestic unrest and the threat of nuclear force to thwart foreign military intervention. During continued conflict with the West and Israel, revolutionary rhetoric and ideological passions justify the firebrand clerical regime and its axis with Hezbollah, Syria and North Korea to protect the Islamic State from the Great Satan. On the other hand, during a rapprochement with the West, U.S. companies, capitalism and culture creep in and have an enticing power over a sophisticated Iranian population that seeks greater freedoms and a higher quality of life, as it did before the Shah's ouster. The clerical role then becomes obsolete and the necessity of moderate technocrats who can manage a growing economy and the aspirations of the people becomes apparent.
Proponents of President Obama’s current approach of gradually increasing sanctions, covert operations and continued talks recognize its failure to reach U.S. goals, but may argue that there is still time and the U.S. can always resort to an 11th hour surgical strike that may (or may not) delay the program should negotiations fail. But all agree, and Iran knows, a strike will not stop the nuclear program permanently. It will, in fact, redouble the effort to get nukes, kill any chance short of invasion to stop the regime, and unite the population behind the most anti-Western clerics, led by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Indeed, many in the Iranian street—from students to farmers and the middle class—view the nuclear program as a legitimate Iranian right. In any case, the cost of a possible strike is not leveraged during negotiations because the U.S. has not committed to it, and Iran does not fear it.
The failure of the current approach necessitates a new solution that considers Iranian interests, history and bazaar-style negotiating method. The U.S. should learn from its foe and use the bazaar-approach by utilizing all acceptable tools at its disposal, preparing to walk-way from the negotiating table and relaying the message that a failure of a deal does not mean failure to achieve of U.S. policy goals. The U.S. must stop looking desparate for a bargain.
The bazaar-method has several components and can work because the U.S. can obtain its interest: a nuclear-free Iran, while allowing this regime to achieve its ultimate interest: retention of power.
First, the U.S. must immediately enforce a full economic blockade of Iran. The U.S. must send the message through word and deed that it will pursue the death of this regime unless and until it terminates its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. and Iran were closest to a negotiated settlement immediately after the Iraq invasion by President Bush. The Iranian regime felt it would be next to fall and, within a few months of the Iraqi invasion, Iran sent a message through the Swiss ambassador that it sought a grand bargain of détente and nuclear disarmament in exchange for a promise not to overthrow the regime. President Bush never responded. But the same Supreme Leader in Iran is still in power, and President Obama can send the same message through an economic war.
A full embargo includes cutting-off all entities, foreign and domestic, doing business with Iran from U.S. markets. Oil exports make up 80% of Iran’s total export earnings and 50-60% of government revenue. U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, Turkey and India, currently 4 of the 5 top purchasers of Iranian oil, consistently get U.S. “waivers” to continue buying Iran’s oil. With an embargo, they will be forced to immediately halt imports in the face draconian penalties from the U.S. China, the other top purchaser, may balk, but the U.S. would cut essentially all of Iran’s export earnings—and most of its government revenue—even if China continued to buy Iranian oil. The remaining source of government revenue comes from taxes, which, in the face of a complete embargo, would send the economy into a more severe recession and drastically decrease tax revenue. A complete embargo would cause the Iranian government to essentially declare bankruptcy, potentially leading it to reduce payments to its security apparatus and endanger its protection from domestic overthrow. It would also cause a cessation or drastic decrease of payments to its Hezbollah and Syrian clients, its only two allies in the Middle East, effectively isolating Iran from the world.
Second, the U.S. must dramatically increase its naval presence in the Persian Gulf and respond with force against any Iranian vessels violating international maritime law. Again, history has taught us that a limited U.S. military engagement with Iran will send a clear message to the regime that its days may be numbered, and prompt it to change policy. The last time the U.S. engaged Iran militarily in the Persian Gulf it led Iran to seek a truce in its war with Iraq. In 1988, Operation Praying Mantis resulted in the sinking of the Iranian frigate Sahand, and two months later the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airline. While the U.S. military said it mistook the civilian airliner for a military jet, Iran did not buy the excuse and thought it was the first salvo in a direct confrontation. Iran quickly concluded that it must end the war before the U.S. became more fully engaged.
Third, the U.S. must continue its covert operations against Iran. They have been successful, and should be increased in creativity and intensity.
Fourth, the U.S. must dramatically increase funding for Voice of America and engage the Iranian street in a deep, continued and sophisticated dialogue to express legitimate U.S. concerns and send the message that its beef is only with this regime obtaining a nuclear weapon capability.
These steps will cause the clerics to scream that they were right all along: the U.S. is not interested in a negotiated settlement, only its overthrow. At which time, the reply will be that we are ready for the full implications of an economic embargo, and leave Iran thinking that a military confrontation may follow. The U.S. would be sending the message that it is leaving the bazaar because the price of unending negotiations is too great. The regime, knowing full well it cannot survive an economic or military war, will chase after the American customer, just as it did post Iraq-invasion and post-USS Vincennes. But, at this point, the U.S. will have the upper hand. It can make a demand before returning to the table: The U.S. will declare it is not interested in the overthrow of the regime and show its goodwill by easing the embargo, in exchange for a verifiable suspension of Iranian nuclear activity before the negotiations. Then, unending negotiations will actually benefit the West.
David Peyman, an Iranian-born prosecutor, is an advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran. The views here are his own.