Better luck this time?

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Obama's Plan to Aid Iranian Moderates Failed Spectacularly

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Remember when the nuclear deal with Iran had a chance to strengthen the country's moderates? Jeb Bush was the Republican presidential front-runner. Fetty Wap ruled the charts. Serena Williams nearly won the Grand Slam of Women's Tennis. 2015. What a year.

You don't really hear this line any more from President Barack Obama. To understand why, consider Friday's elections in Iran. In theory, Iranians will be choosing members of their parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a panel of Islamic scholars who will choose the country's next supreme leader, who controls Iran's foreign policy and nuclear program.

With most sanctions lifted, the nuclear deal is popular in Iran. So this should be a golden opportunity for Iran's relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to consolidate his power. But this is Iran.

Beginning in January, the regime's Guardian Council began purging any candidates who espoused the slightest deviation from the country's septuagenarian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Candidates who favored releasing political prisoners -- including the leaders of the Green Movement that many Iranians feel won the 2009 presidential elections -- were disqualified. Even members of the Assembly of Experts, who had previously passed the vetting process, were disqualified. So too was the grandson of Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. To paraphrase a former top U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, Iranians on Friday will have a choice between hardliners and hard hardliners.

This counts as a failure of U.S. policy. To be sure, Obama has said repeatedly that the Iran nuclear deal does not depend on changes in the nature of the regime. But nonetheless, he sought to empower Rouhani's moderates against the supreme leader and his hardliners.  

This administration policy began almost as soon as Rouhani himself was elected. After he won the presidency in June 2013, the Treasury Department paused the process for blacklisting front companies and other Iranian concerns targeted by sanctions.

More recently, U.S. and European diplomats worked hard to speed up the implementation of the nuclear agreement so that it occurred before Friday's elections. A policy memo prepared by the State Department on the legal justification for overriding visa requirements for people who have traveled to Iran since 2011, says explicitly that the new law undermined a U.S. national interest of "Iran moderating politically over time." 

Over the summer, Obama expressed guarded optimism that the nuclear deal would open up new possibilities for Iran's moderates. He told NPR that one possible consequence of engaging in nuclear talks is that "Iran starts making different decisions that are less offensive to its neighbors; that it tones down the rhetoric in terms of its virulent opposition to Israel."  

He had previously said that, after agreement on a nuclear deal, "my hope would be that that would serve as the basis for us trying to improve relations over time."

This is not how things have worked out. Instead, the fanatics who run Iran have been more bellicose than ever. They have taken two more Iranian-Americans prisoner; detained and humiliated U.S. Navy sailors; tested new missiles and arrested more human rights activists. Just this week Iran's state-run Fars news agency renewed the bounty on the head of novelist Salman Rushdie.

Defenders of the deal tell us that these provocations are really aimed at undermining Rouhani, who has tried his best to alleviate the strain on his country's economy and civil society. This presumes that different forces in Iran are vying for power and that Iran's long term trajectory is up for grabs.

But this misses an important point. The purges are part of a longer pattern that show the hardliners are not so much interested in gaining political advantage but in eliminating any political competition at all. The Iranian reformers who briefly came into power in the late 1990s and early 2000s are today completely marginalized, exiled or in jail.

To understand the degree of Iran's political stagnation, consider this bit of history. When Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was president of Iran in the 1990s, the journalist Akbar Ganji documented Rafsanjani's role in the murder of dissidents and intellectuals. In 2013, Ganji -- who is himself living in exile -- endorsed Rafsanjani for the presidency, in part because the choices were already so narrowed by the unelected part of the Iranian state.

And so it is today. Despite the humiliation of the electoral purges, Rouhani has encouraged Iranians to vote nonetheless. He has long given up on his promises to release political prisoners or address human rights. If Rouhani is lucky, he will only have to contend with hardliners in the parliament, as opposed to the "hard-hardliners." But the chance to deliver on the promise of political change that Obama hoped he could deliver has evaporated, particularly since the assembly of experts will end up being stacked with reactionaries.

All of this brings us back to the nuclear deal. Despite what Obama says, the only way it can be considered a success is if, over time, Iran really does undergo reform and its leaders abandon the revolution that threatens the rest of the Middle East.

This is because the limits on Iran's nuclear program will expire in 10 to 20 years, after the nation will have had a chance to rebuild its economy and modernize its military. If the hostage-taking terror enthusiasts who run Iran today are in charge of the country when that day comes, then Obama's nuclear negotiations will be revealed to have been little more than a shake down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net