Last year’s Iran nuclear agreement was sold with several powerful arguments, and among the most important were these: that the agreement would strengthen Iranian "moderates" and thus Iran’s external conduct, and that it would allow us unparalleled insight into Iran’s nuclear program.
Both are now proving to be untrue, but the handling of the two differs. The "moderation" argument is being proved wrong but the evidence is simply being denied. The "knowledge" argument is being proved wrong but the fact is being met with silence. Let’s review the bidding.
The idea that the nuclear agreement was a reward for Iran’s "moderates" and would strengthen them is a key tenet of the defense of the agreement. If Iran remains the bellicose and repressive theocracy of today when the agreement ends and Iran is free to build nukes without limits, we have entered a dangerous bargain. It is critical that Iran change, so defenders of the agreement adduce evidence that it has. And the new evidence is Iran’s recent elections. Those elections were a great victory for "moderates" and hard-liners, it is said, and they help to prove that the nuclear deal was wise.
The problem here is that those elections were anything but a victory for Iran’s reformers. As Mehdi Khalaji wrote about the Assembly of Experts election, "if one understands ’reformist’ as a political figure who emerged during the reform movement of the late 1990s and is associated with the parties and groups created at that time, then neither the candidates on the ’reformist’ list nor the winners of Tehran’s sixteen assembly seats can credibly be called by that name." To take one of the examples Khalaji cites, Mahmoud Alavi ran on what has been called a reformist ticket but he "is the current intelligence minister, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed him as head of the military’s Ideological-Political Organization from 2000 to 2009." Khalaji concludes that "no new prominent reformists won seats, and the proportion of hardliners remained the same."
Ray Takeyh and Reuel Gerecht draw a stark conclusion: this year’s elections "spelled the end of Iran’s once-vivacious reform movement...." which has simply been crushed by the regime. "The electoral cycle began with the usual mass disqualification of reformers and independent-minded politicians," they remind us. I’d cite another fact: that reformers of past election years, presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have remained under house arrest for five years now, during the entire Rouhani presidency, demonstrating the true fate of reformers of even a mild variety.
What’s the point of the "reformist" charade? As Takeyh and Gerecht note, "Foreigners don’t have to confess that they are investing in an increasingly conservative and increasingly strong theocracy; rather, they are aiding ’moderates’ at the expense of hardliners." But this charade has in fact worked well, producing headline after headline in the Western media about "reformist" victories. You can fool most of the people some of the time, or at least most of the people who have a strong desire to be fooled--because they wish to protect the nuclear deal and its authors.
Iran’s conduct certainly suggests radicalization rather than moderation, and the past weeks have seen repeated ballistic missile tests. Ballistic missiles are not built and perfected in order to carry 500 pound "dumb" bombs; they are used to carry nuclear weapons. So Iran’s continued work on them suggests that it has never given up its nuclear ambitions, not even briefly for the sake of appearances. The American response has been anemic, even pathetic; we threaten to raise the issue at the United Nations. Two missiles were test-fired today, with the phrase "Israel must be wiped out" written on them. These tests violate UN Security Council resolutions, but the American reaction is cautious: a speech, a debate in New York, perhaps some sanctions, but nothing that could possibly lead Iran to undo the nuclear deal. Because Iran knows that this will be the Obama administration’s reaction, expect more and more ballistic missile tests. Expect more conduct like the interception, capture, and humiliation of American sailors in the Gulf. Expect more Iranian military action throughout the region.
The head of CENTCOM, Gen. Lloyd Austin, put it this way: "we see malign activity, not only throughout the region, but around the globe as well.....We’ve not yet seen any indication that they intend to pursue a different path. The fact remains that Iran today is a significant destabilizing force in the region....Some of the behavior that we’ve seen from Iran of late is certainly not the behavior that you would expect to see from a nation that wants to be taken seriously as a respected member of the international community."
Are we now, to turn to the second matter, gaining unparalleled insight into the Iranian nuclear program? Is this one of the achievements of the agreement? On the contrary, it seems. As the AP put it, "the four Western countries that negotiated with Iran — the U.S., Britain, France and Germany — prefer more details than were evident in last month’s first post-deal [IAEA] report. In contrast, the other two countries — Russia and China — consider the new report balanced, while Iran complains the report is too in-depth. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano feels he has struck the right balance, considering Iran is no longer in violation of U.N. and agency demands to curb its nuclear program. His report was much less detailed than pre-nuclear deal summaries...."
Much less detailed? Sure, because the UN Security Council resolutions under which the IAEA provided the detail, are gone, wiped out by the nuclear deal. The IAEA’s February 26 report was its first since the nuclear deal went into effect, and lacked details on matters such as uranium stockpiles, production of certain centrifuge parts, and progress by Iran toward meeting safeguard obligations. The Obama administration has wavered, sometimes saying there was enough detail, but then demanding more. The deal was sold, in part, as a way of providing transparency, but that does not appear to be accurate: it may in fact legitimize opacity. Earlier this week came a remarkable exchange between a reporter and State Department spokesman John Kirby, who defended the degree of knowledge we have.
Kirby said "So we now know more than we’ve ever known, thanks to this deal, about Iran’s program." The reporter, Matt Lee of AP, asked ""How much near-20 highly percent enriched uranium does Iran now have?" Kirby replied "I don’t know." To which Lee noted "You don’t know because it’s not in the IAEA report."
So, the bases on which the nuclear agreement with Iran was sold appear to be crumbling. Moderates are not gaining power, Iran is not moderating its behavior, and we know less rather than more about what it is actually doing in its nuclear program. Some of those conclusions are denied by the administration and by credulous portions of the press, and others are ignored. But all those verbal games will not make us any safer.