National Security & Defense

Obama’s Iran Deal Forgets a Crucial Lesson of the Cold War

At the Freedom Tower in Tehran. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty)

The Obama administration likes to say that the only alternative to its nuclear deal with Iran would be a military confrontation. But there is a much better alternative: facilitate the prompt and peaceful replacement of Iran’s Islamist regime.

Rather than a risky choice, in fact, it would have historical precedent: This strategy worked well with the much more dangerous Soviet Communist state, which already had an arsenal of nuclear bombs and ICBMs in excess of our own.

Regime change is the only deterrent against aggression and nuclear threat by a totalitarian state, as our experience with the Soviet Union shows. The Soviets used the arms treaties with the U.S. mainly to catch up with America’s superior military technology; it was only the deterioration of Soviet Communism that led to a drastic reduction of its nuclear arsenal and its overall aggressiveness. The U.S. abetted the collapse of Soviet Communism by leaving its economy to stagnate, by delegitimizing the regime, and by supporting internal dissent.

The concept of regime change suffered a serious setback with much less successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The strategy used there was completely different from the one used with the Soviet Union, and relied on military intervention rather than on non-violent internal resistance, but critics used these experiences to dismiss the whole approach anyway.

RELATED: How the West Can Use the Iran Deal to Foster Regime Change

Moreover, peaceful regime change requires that a country have internal opposition or a dissident movement, which serves as the main internal force for dismantling the totalitarian regime. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had one, but Iran does. In fact, it is so strong that, in 2009, it was close to overwhelming the existing regime.

The approach that proved so successful in the more difficult case of Soviet Communism still has a great chance to work with Iran.

Thus, even if regime change is out of fashion, the approach that proved so successful in the more difficult case of Soviet Communism still has a great chance to work with Iran. With strong pressure from the West and support for dissidents, there is a real prospect for the collapse of Iran’s Islamist regime — the only reliable way to put an end to their aggression and nuclear threat.

Hence, our policy toward Iran and the agreement with that country should be judged first and foremost by whether it aids the collapse of totalitarian rule or effectively prolongs its existence. Unfortunately, the deal we have right now serves the latter purpose.

It’s not just that the deal would relieve the regime from Iran’s current economic crisis — it would also strengthen the regime politically and symbolically. Signed by major countries and approved by the U.N., it makes Iran a respected member of the international community and provides legitimacy to the Iranian regime and its Islamist ideology. This is great encouragement for its hardliners and a serious blow to the opposition.

RELATED: Could the Iran Deal Be the Worst International Accord of All Time?

The deal conspicuously omits any demand that Iranian government observe basic human rights. Critics rightfully blame Obama for not requiring the release of American hostages as a precondition for negotiations, but it is no less important that the administration did not demand the release of Iranian political prisoners. The president has thrown under the bus the entire dissident movement of the country, the only internal force for its potential liberalization.

More broadly, the Iran deal completely abandons the linkage between security and human rights, a winning principle of American policy toward totalitarian regimes. The concept was the credo of Soviet dissidents and gained international recognition when its most prominent proponent, academician Andrei Sakharov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

#related#The linkage between security and human rights was accepted as an important part of U.S. foreign policy by President Ford’s signing of the Helsinki Accords. The accords consisted of three equal parts, the first containing exclusively security provisions and the third completely devoted to the human rights, pointedly giving equal prominence to the two issues.

The accords encouraged Soviet dissidents to create independent human-rights associations, which came to be known as “Helsinki groups,” to hold the authorities accountable to their international obligations. Despite severe persecution, the groups managed to survive long enough to influence both the international community and the Soviet leaders, which contributed to democratization of the country and the collapse of the Communist regime.

The concept of linkage of security and human rights was further developed by the Carter and the Reagan administrations: Human rights were, for instance, part of the important security negotiations between the Reagan administration and the Kremlin.

RELATED: Appeasing Iran Ignores the Lessons of History

Unfortunately, after Reagan, the concept, and overall support for dissidents, began to dissipate, the foreign policy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has relegated it to oblivion. From the first visit Secretary of State Clinton made to China to warming relations with Cuba’s Communist dictators, dissidents and political prisoners were completely forgotten. The nadir was reached in 2009, as the Iranian regime teetered, U.S. administration’s refusal to do anything to support the country’s rising opposition. The current nuclear agreement finalizes the disconnect between security and human rights, making more or less official the betrayal of Iran’s dissidents.

So in three major points: By relieving the Iranian regime’s economic problems, granting it legitimacy, and abandoning its dissidents, the agreement will consolidate and prolong Iran’s totalitarian regime. This will ensure the country’s continued aggression and status as a near-nuclear threat.

The wrong strategy not only produces the wrong kind of agreements, but also attracts the wrong partners.

The wrong strategy not only produces the wrong kind of agreements, but also attracts the wrong partners. If human rights were to be an important component of the agreement, Russia and China, as gross violators thereof, would have hardly become American partners.

The involvement of Russia and China in the deal was a big mistake. They were brought in on the false premise that they had common interests with the United States in relation to Iran. In reality, Russia and China have much more in common with Iran, as they share with it the same main enemy — the United States of America.

With Russia and China guarding Iran from the U.S., the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard will be given more time, resources, and license to reinforce their power in the region, support for terrorism around the world, and efforts to build a nuclear bomb. With Russia and China as co-signatories of the agreement, the Iranian regime can rest assured that it’s getting a good deal.

— Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a scientist and human-rights activist. He was a leading Soviet dissident and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. 

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