December 15, 2017

Democratic transition to prevent revolutionary Iran from nuclear-armed status

THE HILL

By Raymond Tanter

Key senators in the incoming Republican majority and like-minded Democrats have a vision of Iran as a revolutionary state. It is risky to conduct business as usual with revolutionary Iran. If “regime change from within” were an implicit part of U.S. policy, emergence of a free Iran that does not become a nuclear-armed state is likely. President Barack Obama, however, treats Iran as if it were a normal state to engage in give-and-take bargaining.

Regarding current talks to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, Republican senators believe they have votes from both parties to pass additional economic sanctions on Tehran to overcome a veto by Obama. The White House is on record to avoid congressional scrutiny of any agreement. But a bipartisan coalition could use its majority to compel a vote on any accord from the November 18-24, Vienna talks between the major powers and Iran.

Opposing congressional oversight, supporters of reaching out to Iran say it has not decided whether it is a revolutionary movement or a normal state; hence, U.S. diplomacy can strengthen pragmatists against revolutionaries. This unsuccessful search for a moderate highlights the fallacy of treating Iran as a normal state. Even “pragmatists” accept rule by Iranian clerics.

Business as usual is consistent with a report that Washington may reestablish an economic-diplomatic presence in Tehran, if there were a positive outcome in Vienna. But expectations are rising that an agreement is likely to be a “bad deal.” If so, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chair of foreign operations subcommittee of the incoming Appropriations Committee and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), incoming Foreign Relations Committee chair are cosponsoring a bill intended “to kill” a bad deal, according to Graham.

In addition to being a nuclear threat, Iran may be building missile facilities in Syria to prop up the Assad regime. Such missile production is acclaimed on religious beliefs inherent in the Iranian Revolution: “Today, the Islamic Iran has grown into the world’s sixth missile power and this is a major source of pride for the Revolution,” stated an officer of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It has enhanced military capabilities in Iraq “to steal the show from Washington,” with a blow by the IRGC to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, (ISIS).

The Obama October 2014 letter to Khameni implies coordination with Iranian forces in Iraq about ISIS. Such cooperation is opposed by key Republicans in the incoming Congress. As chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would control drafting the annual defense policy bill for the Senate. McCain supports Iranian dissidents of Camp Liberty, Iraq, the core group advocating a free Iran. And Graham,  with whom McCain often partners, would bring the Iranian nuclear program to an end through peaceful means, e.g., via a democratic transition.

Once U.S. policy adopts a vision of bringing democracy to Iran, there might be avoidance of a choice between bombing and living with a nuclear-armed Iran. Soft revolutions that transformed Eastern Europe into democracies are a model for regime change in Iran. And four former republics of the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons gave them up after its dissolution.

Typical of treating Iran as a normal state, Obama’s first letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran sent just prior to the 2009 Iranian presidential election, expressed hope for improving ties between Tehran and Washington; but that letter received a defiant public rejection. Regarding the fourth letter, a newspaper close to the Supreme Leader accused the United States of fomenting a soft revolution in Iran, rejecting the claim Washington wanted to improve relations.

In 2009, Obama made positive but short-lived support for the defunct Green Movement and its leaders who accepted rule of the clerics and only wanted a share. He failed to acknowledge the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Its Ten Point Plan for an Iranian democracy rejects clerical rule in favor of a democratic Iran that is not a nuclear threat. Revelations of Tehran’s progress toward the bomb reinforce NCRI commitments to a nuclear-arms free Iran.

President Bush in a press conference of March 2005 about talks between Iran and the European Union implicitly reached out to the NCRI. But Obama’s State Department failed to do so when an opportunity arose. Notwithstanding executive branch treatment of Iran as a normal state, a bipartisan coalition of the incoming Congress is likely to press the administration to consider the Iranian regime as a revolutionary state and the NCRI worthy of support of the United States.

Tanter was a member of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. His latest book is “Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.”