Reuel Marc Gerecht on the Dangerous Incompetence of Iran’s Leadership

In the latest issue of the Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht has an essay on the inexplicable failures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in its nuclear standoff with the United States and its allies:

The Iranian regime really should have been able to outplay the West in the recent P5+1 nuclear meetings in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow. Contrary to what is sometimes written on the American right, they manifestly did not. The Europeans and the Americans held firm, though they wanted to deal. Even more than President Barack Obama, the Europeans want to avoid an Israeli preemptive strike. In the White House and in Europe, there is little appetite for more impoverishing sanctions. All would prefer to stop, if the Iranians would only adhere—perhaps just pretend to adhere—to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed and ratified in 1970 and which actually allows a lot of maneuvering room for a nuke-seeking deceitful state.

Truth be told, if Tehran had just confessed that it had, once upon a time, thought about making a nuclear weapon, had experimented with developing triggers and warheads, but had forsaken the idea on religious grounds, the West would have greeted this as a major breakthrough. Paris and Washington—the most important players on the Western side—would have been inclined to grant Tehran considerable leeway on uranium enrichment, probably even at the underground, bunker-bomb-challenging Fordow facility. The Iranians, who deny that their nuclear program has any military component, certainly could have proceeded, with at least the implicit approval of the West, enriching to 5 percent or higher. And as long as the 5 percent stockpile, which is about 70 percent of the way to making bomb-grade uranium, continues to grow, the regime will have a rapid breakout potential, provided it can improve the quality of its centrifuges. Better centrifuges allow for much smaller cascades and more rapidly produced highly enriched uranium, and are the key to escaping large, targetable facilities, like Natanz and Fordow. The Iranians have had a devilishly difficult time manufacturing improved versions of the A.Q. Khan-delivered, Pakistani-designed P1 model. But they have, slowly but surely, progressed. They need time, which a confession would have bought them.

Yet Khamenei’s failure means that the major European powers are increasingly willing to support sanctions on Iran’s energy industry that will be as stringent and economically devastating as those imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War. 

Gerecht situates Khamenei in the larger context of Iran’s revolutionary elite, which he describes as a collection of intellectual mediocrities driven by resentment towards Iranian clerics of greater scholarly distinction, many of whom advocated political reform and a strategic accommodation with Europe and the U.S. 

This contracting, insular Iranian VIP world—made all the more surreal by the Islamic Republic’s unjammable cultural and intellectual openness to the West -courtesy of satellite dishes, the Internet, and relatively inexpensive foreign travel—has had a major impact on foreign policy. It’s produced profound tension within Iranian society, between the rulers and ruled and within the ruling class. Khamenei is so implacable toward the West, especially the United States, because he sees how many Iranians, especially within the revolutionary upper crust, have fallen from the path. Their incessant talk of democracy and human rights, to his ears, has a made-in-America ring to it. Iran’s internal crisis of legitimacy is thus in great part America’s fault. Understood from the inside out, Iran’s nuclear program is for Khamenei a means to counter internal rot by checkmating the foreign menace. This understanding is probably false—thousands of nuclear weapons didn’t save the Soviet Union from internal collapse. But Khamenei isn’t a historian.

The essay concludes on a chilling note, with Gerecht speculating as to how Khamenei might respond to acquiring a nuclear weapon. He spins out scenarios of what might happen if Israel launches a preventive attack, and how the United States might respond. Though the most strategically sound Iranian response would be to respond with restraint, as it would shatter the trans-Atlantic alliance against Iran, Gerecht anticipates that Khamenei and his allies would most likely “take their revenge through terrorism,” a response that would probably force the United States to respond militarily. 

What I appreciate most about the essay is that rather than discuss Iranian behavior or Iranian intentions in some generalized sense, it gives us a rich picture of Khamenei’s anxieties and resentments and how they’ve shaped his often reckless approach to nuclear diplomacy. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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