A Change in Iranian Presidents Doesn't Change the Badness of the Iran Nuclear Deal
By Richard Goldberg, Senior Advisor - Foundation For Defense of Democracies
When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei selected Ebrahim Raisi to be the next president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khamenei was sending Washington a message akin to Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous 1956 pronouncement: “We will bury you.” But don’t tell that to the unflappable advocates of appeasement in Washington who insist it is always the right time for rapprochement with Iran.
Raisi is a hanging judge who sentenced thousands of political prisoners to die, and he remains ideologically devoted to the Islamic Revolution. Yet somehow, the appeasers believe his inauguration this week will magically open the door to peace for our time.
Back in 2013, this same group was promoting a completely different narrative. After the supreme leader selected the supposedly moderate Hassan Rouhani to be president following eight years of threats and bluster from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Western newspapers and analysts hailed Rouhani’s elevation as a sure sign that Iran was passing into Thermidor.
“Iranians took a step toward ending their country’s isolation by voting overwhelmingly in weekend presidential elections for a moderate reformer who promised a clean break from policies that put Iran on a collision course with the West,” wrote the Washington Post. “Rouhani will have a powerful mandate to improve Iran’s international relations and attempt to negotiate a settlement of Iran’s nuclear activities.” An article in the New York Times, headlined “President-Elect Stirs Optimism in Iran and West,” noted that “there is growing optimism in Iran and in the West that Mr. Rouhani, 64, is ready to restart serious talks on the nuclear issue.”
Rouhani, of course, was no moderate, nor even a reformer. Those who looked more closely saw he was a loyal servant of the supreme leader. He was a member of the Supreme National Security Council’s special operations committee during the high-water mark of Iranian terrorism abroad — including the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, the 1992 assassination of four dissidents at a Berlin restaurant, the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen.
But the pro-engagement narrative at least made sense. Iran faced significant economic pressure after Congress imposed sanctions on the regime’s central bank and forced the SWIFT financial-messaging system to cut off Iranian banks. Compared to Ahmadinejad and his calls for wiping Israel off the map, Khamenei’s other lieutenants came off as superficially moderate at least. This gave the Obama White House the political room to bring secret talks with the regime into the public domain — and press forward with what would become the Iran nuclear deal. Eight years later, no amount of spin or massage can cast the man hand-picked by the supreme leader to be the next president as a moderate. In 1988, as a zealous young prosecutor, Raisi sat on Iran’s death commission, ordering the execution of so-called “apostates” and “denigrators of Islam” every hour for months. The Hangman of Tehran called these murders “one of the proudest achievements of the system.” He would keep sending Iranians to their death for several decades: as chief prosecutor in Tehran, first deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, and, most recently, as judiciary chief. That is why the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Raisi in 2019. If the selection of a “moderate” cleared the way for diplomacy in 2013, wouldn’t a return to a fire-breathing “hardliner” like Raisi spell its demise? Not at all, argue the nuclear-deal die-hards.“Why Raisi Is the West’s Best Hope for a Deal with Iran,” suggested the headline on a column from Johns Hopkins’s Vali Nasr. “Hard-liners would never accept an agreement signed by a moderate — but they’ll fall into line if it comes from one of their own.” “For Biden, Iranian Hard-liner May Be Best Path to Restoring Nuclear Deal,” added the New York Times. On the Times opinion page, Ali Vaez and Dina Esfandiary added to the chorus: “The Hard-Liners Won in Iran. That’s Not All Bad News.”
When asked if Raisi’s selection would complicate the administration’s drive to rejoin the nuclear deal and lift U.S. sanctions on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Biden national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said only one person mattered in Iran: the supreme leader. How funny — that’s exactly what opponents of the nuclear deal said back in 2013 when the Obama administration was selling America on the need to embrace a flawed nuclear deal to empower “Rouhani the moderate.”
Of course, Sullivan is correct — and the selection of Raisi is only one of many signals the supreme leader has sent Biden this year, making clear that Khamenei fully intends to pocket any sanctions relief he receives from Washington to fuel the Islamic Republic’s war on the United States and its allies.
The Justice Department revealed this month that Iran attempted to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil, kidnapping a U.S. citizen from New York. Iran-backed proxies in Iraq have attacked U.S. forces for months with little to no response from Biden. Iran-sponsored terror groups such as Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen have lobbed missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. And the supreme leader has vastly escalated his nuclear provocations — enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity, producing uranium metal, and limiting monitoring by international inspectors.
In every way that matters, Khamenei is telling Biden, “We will bury you.” Biden’s response has been to offer cash. After all, the nuclear deal is fundamentally an appeasement pact masquerading as a nonproliferation deal; it offers Iran money for temporary nuclear restraint, and no restraint at all on the development of nuclear-capable missiles and the regime’s pursuit of regional hegemony.
In his first press conference as president-select, Raisi made clear that Iran would never negotiate the longer, stronger deal Biden said he could achieve by first returning to the old one. Khamenei reaffirmedas much last week. Biden should take “no” for an answer and leave a bad deal where it belongs — in the past.
Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff, and as a U.S. Navy Reserve intelligence officer. Follow him on Twitter @rich_goldberg. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.