Tuesday a revolutionary court in Tehran began trying Washington Post Iran correspondent Jason Rezaian on charges of espionage. Rezaian, who has already been held for more than ten months, is but one of four American hostages which the Islamic Republic holds.
Former FBI agent Robert Levinson just passed his 3,000th day in Iranian prison.
Monday, on Memorial Day, retired U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati spent his 1,367th day in an Iranian prison. He was picked up by security in Tehran while visiting his grandmother. His visit was not careless; he had secured permission from the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., before making his trip.
The fourth hostage is Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor from Idaho whom Iranian authorities arrested in 2012 while he, too, was visiting family.
Jason Rezaian is a canary in the coal mine. Negotiating with Rouhani over the fate of the Iranian nuclear program is like striking a deal with a night watchman to buy the Empire State Building.
Actions speak louder than words. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have predicated outreach to Iran on the idea that rapprochement will strength the hand of the moderates against Iran’s implacable ideologues. In a sense, the White House believes they have found a Deng Xiaoping moment in which support for pragmatists can marginalize hardliners permanently and enhance security and cooperation between former adversaries.
Their logic is wrong on three counts. First, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no moderate. He was always the Iranian regime’s trusted “Mr. Fix-it.” As nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, he bragged about deceiving the West. Defending his feigned moderation to the West, he outlined a doctrine of surprise: Lull America into complacency with talk, and then deliver a knock-out blow.
During the 2013 election campaign (in which Iranian authorities allowed only one percent of the candidates to actually run), Rouhani’s campaign commercials highlighted how he was the first person in the Islamic Republic to bestow the honorific “Imam,” in context suggesting Messianic overtones, to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Finally, the record matters. Rouhani purged Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) veterans from the cabinet, but replaced them with Intelligence Ministry veterans. Rouhani is as much a reform Iranian politicians as Vladimir Putin is a reform Russian politician.
Second, even if a deal bolsters Rouhani’s popularity, he remains marginal on questions relating to Iranian nuclear policy today. In the Islamic Republic, the president is about style, the Supreme Leader about substance. When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke about “heroic flexibility,” he did not endorse a nuclear deal, but rather a change in tactics.
The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are wholly in the hands of the IRGC, a group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a string of terrorist attacks stretching from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Bangkok. Notably, the IRGC has refused to endorse or abide by any agreement reached in the current process.
Furthermore, while acting State Department spokesman Marie Harf has suggested money might moderate Iran, she ignores the stranglehold that the IRGC has over Iran’s oil industry, construction, and import-export. Delivering $100 billion to Iran will simply make the IRGC the world’s richest terrorist group by several orders of magnitude.
Indeed, Obama’s strategy has been tried before. Between 2000 and 2005, a period when so-called reformists still ran Iran, European Union trade with Iran more than doubled. So too did the price of oil. Iran reaped a hard currency windfall. The result? A hugely enhanced nuclear and ballistic missile program.
And, third, the China model may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. China never joined the West or embraced global peace and tolerance, but rather used its new found wealth to build a first world military and bully not only its neighbors but also the United States. Enriching and empowering enemies never works unless, of course, the goal is to lessen the relative power and position of the United States. Does Obama really want a new China?
Back to Jason Rezaian. He is a canary in the coal mine. Negotiating with Rouhani over the fate of the Iranian nuclear program is like striking a deal with a night watchman to buy the Empire State Building.
The Obama administration may like to believe that Rouhani has the desire and power to bring Iran’s hardliners into check but if he can’t stop revolutionary authorities from seizing and trying Americans in kangaroo courts (or just holding them incommunicado as in the case of Levinson), then how can anyone imagine that Rouhani can bring them into line with regard to nuclear policy?
Perhaps Iranian officials once thought they could trade hostages for concessions, as they did under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. They never expected a White House so disinterested in winning the freedom of its citizens, however.
Perhaps then, as with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), the goal of seizing, torturing, and perhaps even executing Rezaian is to humiliate the United States.
Once, Iranian authorities sought to humiliate symbolically the United States by forcing pedestrians to march over depictions of the American flag. The treatment of Rezaian against the backdrop of American impotence simply raises the symbolism to a new level.
Iran’s ideology hasn’t changed and it won’t, so long as the Supreme Leader remains and the Islamic Revolution persists. The only change that will come will be the names of its victims. Unfortunately, Mr. Rezaian will not be the last.
Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterpise Institute and author of Dancing with the Devil (Encounter, 2015), a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes.