Every president for the past two decades has acknowledged the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambition. During the next administration, this once-theoretical capability will become real. “When the Iranian nation reaches the peak,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared on June 3, “all enmities and evils will cease.” Just last month, he threatened that “the fake Zionist regime will soon disappear.”
Barack Obama made outreach to Iran the cornerstone of his policy toward that country. In his first interview as president, he declared, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” In effect, though, this desperate diplomacy transformed Obama into Tehran’s useful idiot. By offering to negotiate without preconditions, Obama unilaterally waived five previous Security Council resolutions that required Iran to cease uranium enrichment unconditionally. Hassan Rowhani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, bragged about how the regime had often embraced dialogue not to resolve conflict but to buy time.
Seeking to avoid antagonizing the regime, Obama turned his back on protesters who rose up against it in 2009. His conciliation won him no favors. On November 4, 2009, the 30th anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure, Khamenei ridiculed Obama and his outreach. “This new president of America said beautiful things. He sent us messages constantly, both orally and written: ‘Come and let us turn the page, come and create a new situation, come and let us cooperate in solving the problems of the world.’ It reached this degree!” Khamenei then told assembled students that any agreement with America was off the table.
Obama can talk tough. “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he declared at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March. But rhetoric is not enough: Credibility matters. By voiding past redlines and quibbling over new ones, Obama has signaled his rhetoric’s emptiness. Obama’s dispute with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu boils down to how far the United States will allow Iran’s nuclear program to progress. After all, the difference between the nuclear-weapons capability to which Obama would acquiesce and the nuclear-weapons possession he treats as his redline might be only one week, leaving the U.S. without time to act once Tehran makes a decision to weaponize.
If Washington is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability, determination matters. The contrast between Obama’s fecklessness and Mitt Romney’s resolve is sharp. Romney has described stopping an Iranian bomb as “a solemn duty and a moral imperative”: “Make no mistake, the ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defenses. They want to know who will object and who will look the other way.”
For his part, Obama has consistently resisted meaningful sanctions. It took a 100–0 Senate vote, after almost three years of Obama’s failed outreach, before Obama consented to impose them on Iran’s banks and its oil trade. The sanctions may hurt, but there are loopholes. By issuing waivers to Iran’s top 20 trading partners and welcoming anti-sanctions activists into the White House, Obama has signaled a lack of resolve. Romney will plug the holes, but the time Obama squandered is lost forever.
Romney is right that a strategy of robust sanctions is no longer enough. In a July interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, Romney outlined other ideas, including “indicting [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide, standing for voices of dissent within Iran, and developing reliable military options” as a last resort.
All of these are necessary, but Romney should go farther. Ahmadinejad’s final term ends in less than a year, and he has never been the issue anyway: In the Islamic Republic, the president is about style, not substance. The supreme leader shapes the policy, and he — in addition to Ahmadinejad — should be targeted by the Romney administration for incitement to genocide. It was Khamenei who, for example, declared that “the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted” and, a month later, that “the perpetual mission of Iran is the elimination of Israel.” Genocide scholars and members of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda have determined that the persistent use of dehumanizing medical metaphors — such as likening a people to malignancy — meets the legal threshold of incitement to genocide.
Nor will “standing for voices of dissent within Iran” be enough. Solidarity is nice, but Iranian activists need cash. Failure to provide aid to Iranian civil society out of fear that the regime will stigmatize its recipients is misguided, because the regime accuses all opponents of foreign ties whether they receive money or not.
The best hope for civil-society empowerment lies not in any Iranian politician or in the Green Movement that arose from the June 2009 protests, but rather in Iran’s nascent trade-union movement. As a rule, the Iranian people are far more moderate than their clerical leaders. In 2005, Tehran bus driver Mansour Osanlou organized his colleagues and forced the regime to recognize the Islamic Republic’s first independent union. New unions have sprouted, especially in the oil-rich Khuzistan province. Osanlou is now in prison, but his movement survives. At a minimum, every dollar Iranian unions force the regime to spend on ordinary people is one dollar not invested in nuclear technology and weaponry. Labor unrest in Iran’s oil fields could be far more effective than sanctioning oil, and a strategy relying on it would not be beholden to Russian or Chinese goodwill. The Islamic Revolution succeeded in 1979 largely because strikes paralyzed the country. Ending the revolution the way it began would be poetic justice.
Romney was right when he observed that “when the world’s most despotic regimes secure the world’s most destructive weapons, peace often gives way to oppression, to violence, or to devastating war.” But to focus only on denying Tehran nuclear weapons misses half the problem: Permanent peace requires ending Khamenei’s despotic regime.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) serves as Khamenei’s Praetorian guard. U.S. diplomats and intelligence professionals tend to ignore factionalism within the IRGC. This is policy malpractice, first because it is essential to understand who would really control Iran’s nuclear weapons, and second because regime change will happen only when the IRGC collapses. The better a Romney administration understands the IRGC’s weakness, the more Romney’s team can exploit its fissures.
Americans have become accustomed to considering Iran an enemy. This is a tragedy. The Iranian people have suffered tremendously under their clerical dictatorship, which, in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, has driven a country once on the verge of becoming a world economic power headlong into the Third World. As Islamist populism threatens to engulf Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and Turks, the Iranian people’s suffering has immunized them to those who would use religious rhetoric to further their own ambitions at the expense of freedom. Free from clerical rule, Iran could become a pillar for liberalism. Regime downfall could free Iraq from the terror of Iranian militias and end Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous dictatorship in Syria. Absent Iranian patronage, Hezbollah would starve, enabling Lebanon to reclaim its place as the Arab Riviera. And while nationalism would thrive in a post-revolutionary Iran, a successor regime would be far less likely to hold the world’s economy hostage.
No revolution is permanent. With the right Iran policy, Romney has an opportunity to do more for Middle East peace than all his predecessors combined.
– Mr. Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Istitute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.