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Iran’s New Leaders Will Not Negotiate in Good Faith

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, September 17, 2021. (Didor Sadulloev/Reuters)
A great fallacy of the Biden approach is the belief that, in any agreement with the U.S., Tehran would live up to its commitments.

The Biden administration’s Middle East strategy has at its core the acceptance of Iran as the major regional power. The downplaying of the Abraham Accords is consistent with the policy of retreat and appeasement being pursued in the attempt to buy Iranian compliance with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the fundamentally flawed 2015 nuclear agreement. The cooling of the U.S. defense relationship with Saudi Arabia further reflects the strategic intent being demonstrated in other moves, including the promise to leave Iraq by the end of the year. Absent a dramatic course change, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the accompanying surrender to the Taliban provide a glimpse of what to expect from this strategy.

The illusion that Iran can serve as a stabilizing force in the region can be explained only as an article of misplaced faith, the triumph of hope over experience. Tehran’s goals are diametrically opposed to American interests. Using the Revolutionary Guards, a designated terrorist organization, as its main instrument, Iran is a principal supporter of armed interventions in Syria and Yemen and continues to bankroll its terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. At home, the regime is expanding what is already the largest and most sophisticated ballistic-missile arsenal in the region, with the objective of threatening U.S. forces and allies. And as for its nuclear program, Iran is now accurately considered a latent nuclear power, assessed to be only months away from a weapon. Just last week, Tehran made an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to permit inspection of sites suspected of conducting weaponization work. Within days, Iran breached the agreement, reinforcing the view that the regime is poised for breakout whenever it decides to race to the bomb.

Despite the threat, and vitriolic rhetoric from the supreme leader, the Biden administration has remained largely silent, most likely out of concern that speaking publicly would undercut the prospects for a diplomatic agreement, initially on the nuclear program but with the hope that broader agreements will follow. However, reality has raised its ugly head. The Geneva negotiations have floundered, with the U.S. reportedly offering concession after concession, followed only by increasing Iranian demands for more. And as for the treatment of its own people, the first and foremost victims of the religious dictatorship, the administration has also been mostly quiet, apparently exempting Iran from the administration’s stated commitment to promote human rights and democratic aspirations.

Perhaps the greatest fallacy of the Biden approach is the belief that it can negotiate in good faith with the regime and that, if there is an agreement, Iran will live up to its commitments. On this score, people matter as much, if not more, than stated policy. And the new team, installed by the supreme leader after fraudulent elections in September, makes evident that the underlying assumptions of the Biden strategy will produce only further failure and further loss to vital U.S. interests. Maybe for this reason, relatively little official attention has been devoted to the rogues’ gallery that constitutes the new Iranian leadership, at least ten of whom are today sanctioned by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. Here is just a sampling:

Ebrahim Raisi, the new president, served as a member of the “prosecution committee,” or death committee, in the murder of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Aimed primarily at the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK), the political executions were widely condemned. Ayatollah Montazeri, at the time the heir apparent to Khomeini, described them as the “biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic.” For decades, human-rights groups have called for an investigation into Raisi’s part in the killings. In 2019, the U.S. condemned Raisi’s appointment as the head of Iran’s judiciary and sanctioned him, citing his role in the mass executions and his participation in the brutal repression of protesters following the 2009 sham election. To this day, the Iranian regime continues to conceal its crimes against humanity. Raisi speaks only of his pride in having served his supreme leader.

Mohammad Eslami, now in charge of Iran’s nuclear program, worked with Pakistan’s rogue scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, in 1987 to build Iran’s then-covert centrifuge program to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. For his role in this illicit activity, he has been under U.N. sanctions since 2008.

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the new foreign minister, was a close aide to Qasem Soleimani and, for years, the Quds Force’s man in the ministry, ensuring that this designated terrorist organization has direct influence in Iran’s international affairs. Last week, Abdollahian called for the total elimination of Zionism, a less than subtle code meaning the destruction of Israel.

Ali Bagheri Kani, the new deputy foreign minister and likely lead on nuclear issues, is known for his hardline anti-Western views and criticism of the JCPOA.

Ezzatollah Zarghami, one of the embassy hostage-takers in 1980, is the new minister of cultural heritage, after years of running Iran’s huge propaganda apparatus. He has been sanctioned by the European Union for “committing human rights abuses” and by the U.S. under the category “entities designated as human rights abusers or limiting free expression.”

Ahmad Vahidi, interior minister and former head of the Quds Force, and Mohsen Rezaei, presidential deputy for economic affairs and former commander in the Revolutionary Guards, are on Interpol’s wanted list for terrorist attacks, including the 1994 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 civilians and wounded hundreds more.

And the list goes on to include the vice president, the presidential chief of staff, and the minister of defense. As the person who led the secret negotiations with the Libyans in 2003, I understand the need to deal with unsavory characters who serve as officials of rogue regimes. But this must be done with eyes wide open. Libya in 2003 is a much different case from Iran in 2021. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear-weapons program for a number of reasons, including his concern that Libya would be next on the target list following Saddam’s Iraq and his wish to work with the U.S. to counter the threat of Islamic extremism. Iran today perceives the United States as weak and in decline. It seeks to expand its brand of Islamic extremism. Far from fearing the United States, it seeks to expel us from the region. A policy of retreat and appeasement would only facilitate the regime’s anti-U.S. agenda. A policy of disciplined and determined containment is required to back down the new leaders in Tehran and help the people of Iran to gain their freedom.

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