President Obama has long wanted to engage Iran. In his inaugural address, he said he was willing to “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Over and over, Iran’s rulers have demonstrated that they are not willing. He should reach out again — but this time to the Iranian people, not those who oppress them.
Iran’s economy is crumbling. The energy-rich nation today produces only half as much oil as it did before the 1979 revolution. Mismanagement is the main reason. But because of American and European sanctions, exports of the oil the regime does manage to produce — Iran’s only significant product — are down by 40 percent compared with a year ago. That’s costing the regime an estimated $4.5 billion per month.
On July 1, a European oil embargo went into effect. Tens of millions of barrels of unsold Iranian oil are already being stored in tankers offshore. When Iran’s rulers run out of storage space, they will face a choice: discount their oil even more steeply in an attempt to sell to anyone still willing to buy from them, or cut production further.
Iran’s currency, the rial, is now worth about half what it was before sanctions were imposed. Consumer prices have risen by an estimated 40 percent. Unemployment is rising, too, especially among the young.
The American president needs to explain to ordinary Iranians why this is happening to them, why it will get worse, and who is to blame.
He might begin by noting that negotiations between Iran and the West have gone nowhere because Iran’s rulers have been unwilling to compromise and unwilling to halt a nuclear-weapons program that egregiously violates international law. And, adding insult to intransigence, Iran’s Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, last week issued yet another threat to America, Europe, and Israel: “Today, the time has come for the disappearance of the West and the Zionist regime — which are two dark spots in the present era — from the face of the universe.”
But this, too, happened last week: Iran’s state-television news published an online poll showing 63 percent of Iranians favoring the abandonment of the nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Authorities quickly pulled those results down from the Web, but Golnaz Esfandiari, a Radio Free Europe senior correspondent, had screenshots to prove they had been there. Saba Farzan, a German-Iranian expert on the Islamic Republic, told my colleague Benjamin Weinthal, “For nearly a decade the Iranian regime and its apologists around the globe have created a myth that Iran’s civil society stands behind the regime’s nuclear program. Now, that myth has been fortunately buried once and forever — ironically through a poll the Iranian regime established itself.”
Obama should say, with regret, that Iran’s rulers are guaranteeing that the pressure will increase. He should announce his support for legislation introduced by Representative Ted Deutch (D., Fla.), Representative Robert Dold (R., Ill.), and Senator Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) that would blacklist the entire Iranian energy sector as a “zone of primary proliferation concern.” As suggested by my colleague Mark Dubowitz, he also should designate the Central Bank of Iran as an “entity of primary proliferation concern,” barring international companies from cooperating with it.
The president should say he looks forward to the day when the great Iranian people have leaders worthy of them — leaders concerned with the welfare of ordinary Iranians. What Iran has now: rulers who oppress religious and ethnic minorities; hang homosexuals; rape virgins in prison before executing them (to ensure their punishment in the afterlife); facilitate terrorists abroad (al-Qaeda included); help perpetuate a brutal dictator in Syria; and incite genocide against Israelis.
Obama would recall 2009, when brave Iranians, protesting fraudulent elections, took to the streets, shouting “Death to the dictators!” and asking: “Obama, are you with us or against us?” He would be candid enough to acknowledge that he wishes he had answered without hesitation or equivocation.
Finally, he should reaffirm that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran’s current rulers to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” He should reiterate, too, what he said when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize: “That force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” Should Iran’s rulers leave Americans no alternative, Obama would emphasize, lives will be put in jeopardy — and Iran’s rulers will bear the responsibility.
Such a speech should be followed by other measures — overt and covert — in support of Iranians willing to take the risks necessary to replace a regime that has failed domestically; a regime that has been at war with the U.S. since the seizure of our embassy in 1979; a regime that four years later instructed Hezbollah to suicide-bomb the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; a regime that has facilitated the killings of hundreds of Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan; a regime that plotted to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C., just last year.
The real Iranian problem, as my colleague Michael Ledeen has pointed out repeatedly over the years, is not nuclear weapons — any more than the real problem in Europe in the 1940s was Zyklon B. The real problem is the jihadist regime, which, not alone in the Muslim world, embraces a doctrine of Islamic supremacy and bellicosity. “We can’t get out of this war,” Ledeen has said. “We can win, or lose, but our enemies won’t let us escape the battlefield. We’re the Great Satan, after all, the main enemy.”
As sanctions bite more deeply, and Iran’s rulers talk threateningly of the West’s “disappearance” while illegally assembling weapons that could facilitate the achievement of that goal, the least that an American president should do is explain to the Iranian people the crisis their rulers are fomenting. Doing so would also demonstrate that Obama is seriously engaged in the most consequential international-security crisis of this century, even during an election year.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.