The nuclear accord reached in Geneva last month has sparked a robust debate in the U.S. and around the world. Was the agreement a major achievement in preventing Tehran from obtaining the nuclear bomb, as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have hailed it? Or does it leave the regime’s nuclear apparatus intact while relieving the sanctions that kept Tehran in perpetual domestic crisis?
Well, if you ask the ayatollahs, the world has at last recognized their “right” to enrich uranium, which can be used to produce nuclear power or, troublingly, nuclear weapons.
The Iranian propaganda machine has been in full tilt saying exactly this since the accord was signed. The Iranian regime’s president, Hassan Rouhani said, “Our nuclear right will be operational with more strength and clarity. Even the right of enrichment which is a part of our nuclear rights will continue. It is being continued today, it will continue tomorrow, and our enrichment will never stop. This is our red line.”
More frightening, these claims are being backed up by renewed plans to fire up a specific reactor that world powers have long-feared could yield plutonium for nuclear bombs. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “Iran will pursue construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor.” The Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi joined in, “‘Work at the Arak reactor will continue. … Research and development will continue. All our exploration and extraction activities will continue. There are no activities that won’t continue.”
And so on.
The accord and Iran’s interpretation of the accord reflect the desperate situation in Tehran, which has been crippled by international sanctions and economic mismanagement, rising internal discontent and factional feuding, as well as devastating revelations of the organized opposition of Iran’s nuclear sites that have threatened the survival of the mullahs. To them, some degree of retreat on the nuclear issue was preferable to the existential political crisis at home, and this was the basis for the nuclear talks.
But the Obama administration failed to exploit the mullahs’ weakness in order to secure a much stronger outcome than what was achieved. The administration was too hasty to cut a deal. The longer the administration held out for a more decisive nuclear rollback, the more the increasingly dire economic conditions in Iran would have supported it.
The change in style in Tehran so celebrated in Washington was a heavily orchestrated gambit on Western naivete and illusion about reform. Fears of a major uprising due to economic conditions led Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to embrace Mr. Rouhani’s style as opposed to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s. A deal to rollback sanctions and access to hard currency, the key to buying time for the faltering regime, was the desired outcome. Mission accomplished; at least for now.
According to the accord, up to $7 billion in financial concessions will be released to Iran’s Central Bank, every penny of which contravenes the UN Security Council resolutions demanding a complete end to enrichment. Every penny fills the coffers of the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism.
In the meantime, and not coincidentally, Mr. Rouhani’s smiles have brought more executions, especially of political prisoners. There have been 367 recorded executions, including at least 22 political dissidents, since Mr. Rouhani was elected back in June. Some 3,000 prisoners in the notorious Ghezel Hessar prison west of Tehran have gone on hunger strike since Nov. 25 in protest to the mass execution of 11 victims.
Nevertheless, despite economic gains, the regime remains highly vulnerable and desperate for the next round of talks. Fearful of the population that wants results and is looking for fundamental change following the agreement, Mr. Rouhani said Iran’s problems went beyond sanctions, blaming “unparalleled stagflation” on the profligacy and mismanagement of his predecessor, Mr. Ahmadinejad.
The U.S. should use this leverage to push for full implementation of Security Council resolutions to end all enrichment activities, destruction of the regime’s nuclear weapons program capabilities and snap inspection of every site, declared or undeclared. Self-preservation — not goodwill or reform — is the basis for these talks; if the U.S. fails to understand this, the whole world will pay the price.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of Iranian opposition groups including the Mojahedin-e Khalq, which was removed from a U.S. terrorist list last year and is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. His email is [email protected].