The Mirage Of Moderation
Included in the bill of sale for the Iran nuclear deal was a more progressive, a more moderate Iranian regime. This, at the very least, was what we were promised. It was one of the more hopeful, yet—as we’ve come to know it—chimerical parts of the landmark 2015 deal. It was a deal which, in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions on the country’s floundering and stagnant economy, sought to stymie Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. In accepting the deal, Iran’s assets were unfrozen (to the measure of about $150 billion), its companies removed from international blacklists, and Western oversight committees and regulators were at least allegedly welcomed into the otherwise uncompromisingly private state.
Underlying everything, though, and that which sat beneath the numbers and the logistics was the Geist of the entire deal. This spirit of the deal, if you will, was the very thing of which our government was so boundlessly proud. The spirit was that Iran had become finally a moderate republic. We were at long last negotiating not with a benighted, theocratic despotic regime, a card-carrying member of the axis of evil, but a moderating and perhaps even a beneficent ally and friend. This was the position on which the ambitious, though perhaps overly credulous Obama administration sold us time and again.
Upon closer examination, however, and after three years of its having first come into being, we see that this deal and this promise and this supposed “spirit” was nothing more than a work of fiction. It was an image captured in the arid Arabian sky, in the fleeting clouds of that ancient land. It existed not outside of the minds of Obama’s emissaries. It was a dream the administration envisaged on the horizon, formless and floating, something quite like a mirage out of Tehran’s thin air. The problem was, however, that much like the mirage upon which a certain Englishman named Lawrence looked, this image didn’t exist. Having grasped it, or having thought it did, the Obama administration knew for sure it had a winner, but in reality, it had nothing. Nevertheless, it re-packaged the prepossessing image and sold it back home thousands of miles away.
But it wasn’t an easy sell. Nor in the long run would it prove itself a profitable one. The American people, understandably skeptical of this bold and unprecedented deal (no less, with an erstwhile foe like Iran), hadn’t a reason to disbelief their government. After all, it’s not as though it’s ever lied to them before. All the same, American citizens hadn’t a compulsion so willingly to believe; the narrative scripted by the administration seemed too good to be true. And such is the case with most things that are suspiciously better than they really ought to be, the Iran nuclear deal was just that. In reality, its terms were too one-sided, its potential outcomes too unpropitious. And to top it all off, the concept of a “moderate” Iran was as foreign to American ears as was Tehran, Fars, or Yazd to its feet.
To the Obama administration, though, this was scarcely an impediment. All that this concept of a “moderate” Iran needed to be accepted in America was a little spin. It needed to turn this deal around and paint on its face a more flattering and innocuous grin. It needed to assuage the critics, as always a major piece of foreign diplomacy will, but more than that, it needed to bolster the public relations. It needed to find a way to get Americans to buy in. It needed to flout the merits and doll up the downsides, even if doing so meant being just a bit misleading or omitting the whole truth.
Chief engineer and architect in this department of doctoring was Ben Rhodes. It was his job to allay America’s skepticism and its foreboding about the Iran nuclear deal. Rhodes, once a speech writer, then a mid-level staffer, then the Deputy National Security Advisor for President Obama before the fortieth year of his age, set himself creatively upon the task. In so doing, the young Rhodes proved himself as mendacious as he was precocious.
Quite simply, he knew how to play the game of public perception. With a little bit of artistry here and no small amount of chicanery there, he was able to portray to the American people an Iranian regime that didn’t at all reflect its actual form. On Rhodes’ palate, Iran’s colors were all distorted and its ethos obfuscated. He presented the rogue, theocratic regime as a moderate and increasingly liberal and stable force for good. In a word, Rhodes deceived the American people.
Succeeding President Ahmadinejad, who was in his own right a ghastly head of state, the message forwarded by Rhodes was that President Rouhani would be a new type of leader. The story was that Rouhani would be a reformer to the old mores and an ally to the West. We were told that he was the type of Islamic leader, unlike a Mubarak or a Gaddafi, in whom America could invest its confidence. Unlike the others, he’d be a less bellicose interlocutor, a less otiose dignitary. Bearded, bespectacled, learned, and urbane, Rouhani was supposed to begin a new, softer chapter in Iranian politics. He had a certain hoary and jolly quality about him when viewed from afar. But all gems when exposed to light and seen up close reveal their blemishes. It didn’t take long for Rouhani to show his.
At the outset of his accession in 2013, it was thought that Rouhani would move to install a government that would be less theocratic and more democratic; less motivated by things atomic and more drawn to things irenic. All hopes were thrust on him as the man who could shroud, or at least push into the background of the night, that omnipresent crescent moon. The Obama administration had hoped that in its place, Rouhani would bring with him the dawning of a new Middle Eastern day.
Still, we wait for that sun to rise. Since his electoral victory in 2013 (which, in and of itself, was something of sham; Iran’s “democratic” elections are that only in name), the Rouhani administration has sent to gallows thousands of political prisoners and criminals. And I don’t here mean to use the image of the hangman facetiously. As it was the Middle Ages, as it is now, capital punishment in Iran continues to be a short rope and a long fall. Iran is one the few countries where a condemned man can still expect the noose to hug his breathless neck. In fact, much to the surprise of the “moderate”-mongers, the number of executions per capita in Iran have actually increased under the tenure of President Rouhani when compared with his more “radical” predecessor. On top of that, the persecution of minorities, the silencing of dissidents, and the intimidation of all who look askance at this illiberal regime have also seen their rates increase.
And on top of that, if even we can add to this regime’s growing mountain of “moderation”, Iran has been noticeably more munificent in its donations to terrorist organizations than it had been in years past. From Hezbollah to Hamas to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, terrorist cells have found in Rouhani’s government deep pockets and shared sympathies. All three have been able to sow discord in the region, thanks to Iran’s willingness to subsidize their blood-drenched aims. What’s more, aside from these three terrorist organizations, the Rouhani administration has also spent lavishly to keep financially adrift the Taliban in Afghanistan. More familiar to our ears is the Taliban, and because of Iranian subventions, it’s nearing its golden age and the peak of its political influence. The ancient business of the state sponsorship of terrorism has never known so profitable an age nor so generous a patron. Iran is happy to oblige.
Often, this money funneled to terrorists can be difficult to trace. Better known is Iran’s financial involvement in the Syrian civil war. Its assistance and its payments therein are relatively more exposed. Along with Russia, Iran stands in the now indefensible position of being the leading regional sponsor of this generation’s greatest war criminal, Bashar al-Assad. For years, the two countries—Iran and Syria, that is—have profited from each other’s succor. Their relationship dates back as far as the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It was then that—much to the dismay of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist party regime—Syria defected from its natural, ideological ally and came instead to the aid of Iran. This time, though, decades later, the roles have been changed; It’s now Iran who has come to the much-needed relief of Syria in its effort to sustain this war. Iran has become to Syria a ready neighbor to whom the latter can look for funding, for troops, for intel, and for logistical support. So far, in cultivating his friendship with Rouhani, Assad hasn’t returned from Tehran to Damascus without a bounteous harvest. The fertility of that friendship only seems to be growing.
It’s perfectly clear then, despite the Obama administration’s best efforts to convince us of the contrary, that Iran is no moderate regime. It hasn’t been since well before 1979, nor shall it be, in all likelihood long after 2019. To have driven home this point, one needn’t look further than to Iran’s parliament and its members’ reaction to President Trump’s announcement that he would not be re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal. After receiving the invidious news, a bunch of parliamentarians set fire to a miniature print-out of an American flag. They accompanied the conflagration with the hackneyed yet still harrowing chant, “Death to America!”. They dropped the incinerated symbol and patted out the embers into ashes on the floor. Moderate indeed. The lie has been laid bare and now, under President Trump, we’ll see if moderation really is Iran’s foremost aim.