According to the New York Times’ man in Tehran, Iran’s “hard-liners” are being unusually quiet these days. Bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink reports that what one of his sources among the regime’s Revolutionary Guards calls their “remarkably quiet” behavior is significant. Rather than orchestrating demonstrations or otherwise showing their displeasure with the nuclear talks with the West, as they have at times in the past, this faction is doing nothing. This reflects, he writes, “a general satisfaction with the direction of the talks and the successes Iran is enjoying, extending and deepening its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.” One can’t blame them for thinking so but the apt question here isn’t about what the Times considers the surprising support for the negotiations from the country’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his followers but why those tasked with protecting America’s security shouldn’t be worried about Iran’s contentment?
While Iran’s political system is complex, the Times article reflects a basic misconception about the Islamist regime that is widespread in the West. There are various competing factions within Iran’s government, security forces and religious institutions, the assumption that a group “hard-liners” is fighting against supposed moderates over the future of the country is something of a misnomer. Iran is not one big happy family of Islamists but the division has a lot to do with personalities, institutional loyalties and shades of fanaticism and not much to do with Western beliefs and hopes that Iranian society will become a more liberal place. Just as many American analyses of the politics of the former Soviet Union were driven by misinformed speculation about an ongoing battle between so-called hawks and doves within the Kremlin, so, too, is much of the talk about Iran rendered useless by similar talk about hard-liners and moderates, who are allegedly led by President Hassan Rouhani.
On the issues that matter, be it the theocratic nature of the state, support for international terrorism, the regime’s ambition for regional hegemony and nuclear weapons or the destruction of Israel, there are no real moderates or hard-liners in Tehran as these goals are shared by all the factions. The only differences are about nuances or how much they think they can get away with in pushing the West. If even those identified by the New York Times are pleased with the nuclear talks as well as by their country’s success in spreading their influence around the region via terrorism and support of allied despotic regimes such as that of Bashar Assad in Syria, that is not a sign that Khamenei and his followers are softening up but that they are realizing their objectives.
They have, after all, good reason to be happy.
By merely standing their ground in the negotiations the Iranians have been able to persuade President Obama to abandon his 2012 campaign promises about forcing Iran to give up its nuclear program as well as the United Nations Security Council resolutions forbidding them to enrich uranium. Instead of increasing sanctions until the tottering Iranian economy, undermined by the crash in oil prices, forced a shaky regime to start making concessions, it was the Americans who cracked and gave up all of their considerable economic and political leverage in the talks. Now, 16 months after the interim agreement signed by the U.S. gave a Western seal of approval to the survival of Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans have gone further, agreeing that Tehran can keep thousands of centrifuges and even putting in a sunset clause in the offer put on the table that will eventually end all restrictions on their behavior. The Iranians know the one year “break out” period President Obama thinks gives him enough leeway to stop a bomb is meaningless since Western intelligence there is poor and the decision-making process to re-impose sanctions or take other action will take too long and will be unable to prevent them from cheating. But even if they abide by the deal, the sunset clause will ensure that eventually they will move from the status of threshold nuclear power to one with a bomb if they choose.
Even more important, Khamenei understands that President Obama’s belief in a détente with Iran that will enable it “to get right with the world” is also giving his nation the ability to extend its influence over the region in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. With victories in Syria and Yemen and alliances with terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza, they are now able to credibly threaten every moderate Arab regime as well as Israel. Iranian hard-liners may well say, as one of Erdbrink’s sources puts it, that their movement is “at new peaks of our power.”
But what is missing from this story and much of the mainstream media’s uncritical coverage of administration policy, is any explanation as to why it would be in America’s strategic interests to be so accommodating to forces that hate the West and whose dearest wish is to inflict great harm on the “Great Satan” — America or its partner, “Little Satan” Israel.
The administration may answer that any negotiation cannot be a zero-sum game in which Iran will get nothing. But what President Obama has done is to conduct talks in which Iran gets everything it asks for and the West receives next to nothing. The glee of the “hard-liners” is proof that what Secretary of State John Kerry has negotiated isn’t so much a “bad deal” but a one-sided and shameful appeasement, the details of which the administration has worked hard to conceal from both Congress and its Israeli and Arab allies. The happier the “hard-liners” are, the more worried Americans and those who rely on U.S. strength should be.