FPI Bulletin: Rouhani’s Win Distracts from Iran’s Growing Nuclear Threat

June 19, 2013

The Obama administration and Western media responded too generously to Iran’s recent presidential election, which was neither free nor a harbinger of meaningful reform in the Islamic Republic.

Although the White House praised the Iranian people for their participation in the political process, the election of Hassan Rouhani to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not reflect the open process of a representative democracy.  Indeed, Tehran’s clerical leadership blocked some 600 candidates from appearing on the ballot.  Not content just to deny opposition candidates the opportunity to run, the Islamic Republic has also stamped out organized political challenges to the regime over the years by brutally repressing dissidents, journalists, student protesters, and minority groups.
It should come as no surprise that President-elect Rouhani, as the victor of an inherently undemocratic process, is not himself a democrat.  As The New York Times reported on Monday, Rouhani’s “political life has been spent at the center of Iran’s conservative establishment, from well before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s.”  Indeed, during his time as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rouhani led the regime’s crackdown against large-scale anti-regime protests by university students in 1999. 

In addition, Rouhani served as the lead negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program.  As Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has described the Iranian president-elect’s track record in The Atlantic:

“In 2004, Rouhani described Iranian nuclear policy as a twin strategy of ‘confidence-building and... build[ing] up our technical capability,’ with the goal of ‘cooperating with Europe’ in order to divide Europe from the United States.  Rouhani’s deputy at the Supreme National Security Council, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, described this as the ‘widen the transatlantic gap’ strategy. In the third presidential debate of the most recent election, in a discussion on Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani bragged that Iran was able to ‘import foreign technology from abroad,’ and stressed that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei guided his nuclear diplomacy.”

Rouhani pledged on Monday that his government “will not budge from defending our inalienable [nuclear] rights,” and will not suspend uranium enrichment as demanded by the U.N Security Council and the 35-nation Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  The president-elect’s pledges would obviate the desired endpoint of any further U.S.-led negotiations with Iran before they began.
In its desire for a negotiated settlement to the nuclear standoff with Iran, the Obama administration has ignored the reality that the Islamic Republic has pocketed concessions from the West without reciprocating in kind.  At the G8 summit, President Obama should have taken the opportunity to maintain unity with world leaders in confronting the growing threat of Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons-making capability, and not allowed the chimera of compromise to undercut a hard-nosed, multilateral strategy aimed at compelling Iran to abandon its dangerous nuclear ambitions. 

Indeed, the United States, Europe, and Israel are nearing a moment of truth on Iran’s nuclear program.  In an analysis of the IAEA’s May 2013 report on Iran, Blaise Misztal of the Bipartisan Policy Center assessed that the regime in Tehran will soon have the technical capability to produce stocks of weapons-optimized high enriched uranium in an alarmingly short time—as quickly as nine days by August 2013.  To be sure, Iran has removed large amounts of its enriched uranium stockpile for processing into reactor fuel, but that is reversible.  At the same time, though, it has finished installing enrichment centrifuges at its Fordow site, built deep within a mountain near the city of Qom.  And it is also installing higher-quality centrifuges at its large nuclear facility at Natanz.  That’s why Misztal and his former colleague, Michael Makovsky, warned, “Iran might be delaying the day when it is ready to make the dash to a nuclear weapon, but is ensuring that the dash will be as short as possible.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Maseh Zarif has shown how the Islamic Republic has mastered much of the prerequisite technology for a viable nuclear explosive device.  If Iran succeeds in obtaining one, then the consequences for international security will be severe.  Emboldened by nuclear weapons, the regime in Tehran would increase its support of international terrorism.  It would further spread nuclear weapons-making technologies across the globe, just as North Korea has done.  And it would spark a regional arms race in the Middle East. 

President Obama has repeatedly declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable,” but he has yet to succeed in leading the United States and the international community to definitively halt Iran’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.  Given how protracted economic and diplomatic efforts have failed to persuade Iran to forsake its nuclear enterprise, the Obama administration should therefore take this opportunity to expand its policy to include popular pressure on the Iranian regime.  Iran’s opposition Green Movement engaged in some large-scale demonstrations before the election.  Despite the regime’s four years of relentless pressure against them, Iranians could return to mass protests at any time.  The United States should remain in constant communication with pro-democracy opposition groups, while at the same time mounting an international campaign to urge the release of Iran’s political prisoners, and revamping U.S. international broadcasting efforts to relentlessly highlight the abuses of the Iranian regime and express America’s solidarity with the Iranian people.
The White House has publicly stated that “all options are on the table” to halt Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons-making.  Yet many U.S. observers do not believe that “the military option” of strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities—and, possibly, the regime itself—is being seriously considered.  The Obama administration should emphasize in explicit terms its willingness to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And as a show of resolve, it should increase America’s military presence in the Persian Gulf region to prepare for the possibility of a sustained campaign against the Islamic Republic. 
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the deciding voice when it comes to the country’s nuclear program.  Until he—or whoever might someday succeed him—verifiably abandons ambitions of Iran becoming a nuclear-armed state, the country will continue to pursue its dangerous course.  U.S. policy should be squarely aimed at stopping Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons-making capability—not placing its hopes in negotiations with a hostile regime.

FPI Resources
  • Iran’s Resilient Voters – FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork – U.S. News and World Report’s World Report – June 17, 2013
Additional Resources
  • A 'Pragmatic' Mullah – Bret Stephens – Wall Street Journal (subscription required) – June 17, 2013
  • An Iranian Unicorn – Editorial – Wall Street Journal (subscription required) – June 16, 2013

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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