Peace through strength?

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What the Nuclear Deal's Backers Owe to Iran's Victims

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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On the first anniversary of the Iran nuclear deal, some of its most ardent supporters are worried. President Barack Obama has tried his best to reach out to Iran and end the cycle of enmity between the two nations, but who knows what the next president will do?

So 75 of America's foreign-policy mandarins are urging the White House to establish more permanent diplomatic channels with Iran. In a letter organized by the Iran Project, a nonprofit that advocated the deal, they call on Obama to establish formal channels between the U.S. Treasury and Iran's central, bank as well as a line of communication between State Department deputies and the Iranian foreign ministry.

"We acknowledge that opportunities will be limited for testing Iran’s willingness to work directly with the U.S. due to the political uncertainties in both countries in the coming year," the letter says. "But engagement should be the U.S. government’s long-term goal."

That's understating it. As I've reported, Hillary Clinton's top adviser on national security, Jake Sullivan, last month gave a speech in which he said the U.S. should be raising the costs on Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East. As for Donald Trump, one of his top advisers, retired General Michael Flynn, just published a book saying that Iran is in an alliance with terrorists against the U.S.

Then there is Iran itself. Since agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the regime has fixed an election, arrested an American citizen, briefly held captive U.S. sailors, repeatedly tested ballistic missiles, hosted a holocaust cartoon contest and increased efforts to illicitly obtain nuclear technology. This last infraction came out in the open after Germany's equivalent of the FBI published a report on the findings this month.

For the Obama administration and its supporters, the best way to counter Iran's bad behavior is to reach out even more to Iran. It's a fashionable theory for engagement enthusiasts. If only we treated rogue states like normal states, then they will act accordingly.

But recent events disprove this pleasant hypothesis. Take for example the Iranian procurement efforts documented by German intelligence. When I asked Stephen Mull, the U.S. ambassador in charge of coordinating the implementation of the Iran deal, about it at an event Tuesday at the Bipartisan Policy Center, he said the activity "was exclusively about efforts underway in 2015, in other words before the deal was implemented in January."

Think about what this means. When Iran's negotiators were ironing out the details of the pact in Vienna last year, a deal that establishes a set protocol for Iran's purchase of of nuclear technology, its spies were trying their best to get what they could on the black market. Put another way, at a moment of unprecedented diplomatic engagement from the U.S., Iran was still acting like a rogue.

Contra Mull's blasé reaction, this ought to worry the Obama administration. While the White House is correct that Iran has decommissioned two-thirds of its centrifuges and reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, these concessions are only temporary. Unless a new deal is negotiated in the interim, Iran will be able to reach the nuclear threshold by 2030. If the Iranians are willing to violate the spirit of the nuclear deal when still completing negotiations for it, what will they do when there are no limits to how many centrifuges they can run?

This is why it would behoove the Iran Project to change focus, now that they have gotten their deal. There is a 14-year window now for people of good conscience to support the kind of democratic reckoning that almost felled the regime after it stole the 2009 presidential election. This will be a difficult task. As Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations said at an event this week at the Bipartisan Policy Center, under the current president -- supposed reformer Hassan Rouhani -- Iran's human rights situation is worse than it was under his predecessor, the 2009 election thief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What's more, any effort to support democratic change in Iran that is initiated by the U.S. government will imperil the people it's trying to support.

This is why nongovernmental groups that hope for improved U.S.-Iran ties must provide the lifeline Iran's democratic movement deserves. Instead of urging Obama to cooperate more with Iran against the Islamic State, the Iran Project could pressure companies to divest from the country until the leaders of the 2009 Green Movement are released from prison and house arrest. Instead of calling for more diplomatic engagement, the Iran Project could begin a boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Iran until they allow real elections.

Instead of making excuses for Iran's leaders, the Iran Project could show solidarity with their victims. For them, the stakes couldn't be higher and the clock is ticking.   

(An earlier version of this column was missing its two final paragraphs.)

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

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Eli Lake at

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