ELI LAKE: Trump's Iran gambit: What happens now?
'Iranians will be the authors of their liberation. They will not succeed because of a policy decision in a foreign capital'
President Donald Trump finally made good on his promise Tuesday to get out of the Iran nuclear deal. As I have written, I would have kept the agreement in limbo and let the regime's clerics twist in the wind. But what's done is done.
Much will be written about what the U.S. and its allies should do on the nuclear file. Iran's leaders have made vague threats, and the West must prepare for the prospect of losing visibility into the country's declared nuclear infrastructure. That said, the most urgent task now for Trump is increasing the odds of success for Iran's democracy movement.
To understand why, consider the argument first put forward in 2005 by former CIA analyst and Iran specialist Kenneth Pollack. In his book, "Persian Puzzle," Pollack said there were two clocks for Iran: a countdown to nuclear weapons, and a countdown to democracy. He argued that the best guide for U.S. policy was to try to slow down the former to give more time for the latter.
The heart of the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — addressed the first part of Pollack's formula. It placed temporary limits, between 10 and 15 years, on the amount of uranium Iran could enrich suitable for nuclear power and the scale of the centrifuge cascades it could install at its declared nuclear facilities. Ideally that would buy time for Pollack's second clock.
The problem though is that the nuclear deal also enriched the regime that Iran's democrats are hoping to change. As Iran's diplomats have argued since 2015, the U.S. is required to assure other world powers that large investments in Iran's economy are permissible. Indeed, until Trump's inauguration, it was U.S. policy to soothe European concerns about investment in Iran.
Beyond that, President Barack Obama also conferred legitimacy on a largely powerless president, Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on releasing political prisoners but has presided over increasing repression. In 2015, the year Iran agreed to the JCPOA, the Iranian state executed more than 1,000 prisoners. At a moment when Iran's people were becoming disillusioned with their unelected leaders, America's elected leaders conferred undue respect on them.
In an interview last week, Iranian dissident Heshmat Tabarzadi told me he would shed no tears for the nuclear bargain. "Obama and the Europeans sacrificed the human rights of the Iranian people in order to achieve more security for themselves," he said. "This was a blatant mistake. The point is that the Islamic regime, through its blackmailing via its nuclear programs, managed to buy time, receive dollars, crack down on the Iranian people, meddle in Syria and Yemen, and make the world a less safe place through its development of missiles."
As a young man in the early 1980s, Tabarzadi was a supporter of Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Over time however he became disillusioned and has emerged as powerful dissident, spending stints inside Iran's notorious Evin prison. In 1999, he helped to lead the Tehran University uprising and he also participated in the 2009 protests against the stolen presidential election that year. Now Tabarzadi is the spokesman for Iran's Solidarity for Democracy and Human Rights movement, an underground umbrella organization of other civil society groups.
By virtue of being inside Iran, he has a pulse on the insurrections that are currently roiling his country — ranging from its drinking water crisis to the run on Iran's banks to the movement among young Iranian women to throw off the hijab. So it's important to listen to what he has to say.
He told me that now the best thing for the U.S. to do is to support technologies like Telegram that allow Iranians to communicate securely with one another. An Iranian court recently announced a ban on Telegram, which exposed again Rouhani's powerlessness. Tabarzadi told me that Telegram's founder, Pavel Durov, "managed to create an information revolution in Iran," something he said the State Department's anti-censorship programs did not.
Tabarzadi also said he supported targeted sanctions against the regime's propaganda organs as well as expanding sanctions against Iranian leaders for human rights violations. Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi made a similar point to me last month in an interview when she called for sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, the entity that runs the regime's domestic and foreign propaganda efforts. Tabarzadi said he opposed external investment in Iran at this point. Ebadi said the same.
With that in mind, it's important to remember a few basic rules for supporting nonviolent resistance movements like the one in Iran.
First: Iranians will be the authors of their liberation. They will not succeed because of a policy decision in a foreign capital. Trump must refrain from choosing leaders, arming factions or invading Iran. The Iranian people must lead; the West must support.
Second: Solidarity with Iran's democratic resistance requires a credible channel of communication. That means disregarding outside groups that seek to impose their agenda on the movement, like the People's Mujahadin or U.S. groups that act as a de facto lobby for the regime like the National Iranian American Council. Instead the White House should seek out Iranian expatriates who want to support the movement in Iran but do not believe they can return to Iran as Ayatollah Khomeini did in 1979 to lead the revolution.
Third: Insofar as Trump wants to change the behavior of the Iranian regime, he needs to expand the list of demands beyond nuclear matters. That means tying specific sanctions to the release of political prisoners, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two presidential candidates whose election was stolen in 2009 and who remain under house arrest to this day. Another idea would be to tie sanctions to the movement for a U.N.-monitored referendum to remove the office of the Supreme Leader from Iran's constitution.
It's a shame Obama didn't take this course himself in 2009, the last time Iranians took to the streets demanding a death to their dictator.
Now that Trump has accelerated Iran's countdown to nuclear weapons, it's more urgent than ever for him to speed up the democracy clock. It's ultimately up to the Iranian people to organize their next revolution, but Trump has a chance to pursue solidarity with their struggle instead of negotiating another deal with their oppressors.