President Obama has asked Congress not to enhance existing sanctions against Iran, claiming they will impede his ability to reach an agreement with the regime on its nuclear enrichment program. Given the stakes, one hopes the President has not based his decision on information gleaned from American eavesdropping on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani -- because it is highly doubtful that U.S. authorities would understand his conversations.
Not because Washington lacks competent Farsi linguists, but because the U.S. has shown little aptitude for deciphering the language of ideologically driven regimes like the Islamic Republic and North Korea. The errors made by the U.S. in anticipating and responding to these regimes have been epic, and unlike the Obamacare website that can be repaired and rebooted at some future date, miscalculating the nuclear intentions of malevolent states is far more difficult to undo.
Obama is proceeding to negotiations, having placed much stock in the "moderation" of Rouhani -- a former close aide of Ayatollah Khomeini with impeccable regime credentials, and not unfamiliar with nuclear negotiations or duplicity. As Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator in 2004, Rouhani has publicly boasted of manipulating negotiations with the Europeans to successfully expand Iran's nuclear program. His "success" as a nuclear negotiator followed an earlier accomplishment in his role as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. In that capacity, Rouhani unflinchingly executed what he described as a "decisive revolutionary order to crush mercilessly and monumentally" the 1999 pro-democracy student uprising in Tehran.
In this respect he is not unlike his former superior, Mohammad Khatami -- another failed messiah of Iranian moderation who pursued Iran's nuclear aspirations while serving as Iran's President during the same student crackdown. Like Rouhani, Khatami engaged the West, even shaking hands with an Israeli president and calling for a "Dialogue of Civilizations" - while pursuing the development of nuclear warhead designs, as part of a covert nuclear weapons program.
Lest there be any doubt as to the tactical nature of the deception, Khatami spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh publicly described the machinations used to deceive the West under the guise of negotiations during the Rouhani-Kahatmi tenure before summarizing that: "We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was the continuation of the activities."
Clearly, the ideological distinctions between "moderates" and "hardliners" underpinning Washington's current political calculus have little bearing on accurately evaluating Iran's intentions. So with the regime reportedly a month away from producing enough uranium to build a nuclear device, and negotiations with Iran set to resume in the coming days, the next steps for the U.S. really boil down to a single question: Has Iran chosen to drink from the "poison chalice"?
The phrase is more than metaphor. It is something of a doctrinal guideline in Iranian foreign policy. Ayatollah Khomeini utilized the image to describe his loathed acceptance of a negotiated end to Iran's war with Iraq. Notably, Khomeini's willingness to compromise had little to do with concern for the spilling of Iranian blood, which he described as an elixir that "irrigates the tree of Islam". Rather, the Ayatollah's regime justified its willingness to compromise on the premise that the war was impeding Iran in its primary mission as articulated in the regime's constitution - the "export of the revolution" and the pursuit of Islamic global dominion.
Coming from Khomeini himself, the "poison chalice" has remained a precedent for regime leaders. As noted by several specialists, the Islamic Republic has only considered the "poison" of compromise when Iran's theocrats were faced with a substantivethreat to the continued propagation or existence of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. Other conflicts whose danger fell short of that threshold have been consistently met by the regime's principled abhorrence of compromise -- even in the face of enormous economic hardship.
In failing to understand the religious and cultural dynamics of a regime that views concession to infidels as anathema, and negotiation and gestures as marks of shame and weakness, the West has only negotiated its way to a more rather than less belligerent Iran. As a result, the plethora of apologies, entreaties and incentives proffered by successive American presidents has been consistently met with terrorism, brinksmanship and contempt from the Islamic Republic. To adopt a metaphor from President Obama's second inaugural speech, every open hand to Iran has been consistently met with a clenched fist.
Therefore, even if Obama is correct and Rouhani has prevailed in convincing the regime to explore a more pragmatic route, it is not due to any doctrinal change. It is only because sanctions have pushed the regime closer to the edge -- but clearly not close enough as the centrifuges continue to spin and Iran continues to test U.S. resolve.
Given the precedents, if diplomacy is to have a remote chance of success, Tehran must quickly be disabused of any illusion that the U.S. will not fully leverage its economic power against the regime. They must be left with no doubt that that the era of halfhearted incremental measures has come to an end and that their multi-billion dollar emporium of terrorism and repression will face dissolution if they fail to make the necessary concessions.
Accordingly, despite the President's opposition, Congress should act unilaterally and enhance the existing sanctions against the regime. This may represent the last diplomatic opportunity to convince the mullahs that their only remaining choice is "the chalice", and that failure to choose correctly will open the door to other options that will make its "poison" seem like a Persian delight.
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