By Alan Dowd – ASCF Senior Fellow
October 2015 – Under a baffling procedure that turned the treaty-review process on its head, a bipartisan majority in the Senate—and a large bipartisan majority in the House, for good measure—registered opposition to the president’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Yet in this up-is-down era, the agreement has somehow survived and been “approved.” Backed by a worried electorate—Americans oppose the deal by a two-to-one margin—policymakers who tried to derail this dangerous deal should now focus on bracing America and its closest allies for what comes next. It’s not going to be pretty.
The president may believe Iran can be brought in from the cold, but Tehran’s tyrants aren’t going to live up to his hopes.
Gen. Michael Flynn, who recently retired from his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warns the long-term consequences of the deal could be “the elimination of Israel” or “a large regional war.”
We can add to Flynn’s list increased terrorist activity. We know that the deal allows Tehran to regain access to $150 billion in frozen accounts. As Dennis Ross, advisor to President Obama from 2009 to 2011, points out, “It is inconceivable that the Revolutionary Guards won’t receive a payoff that they can use for aggressive purposes with the Shiite militias throughout the region.”
We also know that the deal does not allow for the sort of unfettered access necessary to keep a dishonest partner honest. Instead, it gives Iran 24-day windows to respond to IAEA inspection requests. Worse, according to the Associated Press, the deal allows Tehran to use its own inspectors to investigate suspicious sites.
When Iran breaks the agreement—as it inevitably will, given its record—the United States needs to be ready to punish the regime.
To be sure, the odds are a) Iran won’t do anything egregiously or obviously in violation of the agreement in the near-term, and b) President Obama won’t do anything even if Iran does violate the agreement. Just consider how committed he was to inking a deal—any deal—with Iran, how he failed to make Assad pay for crossing his “red line,” how he averted his gaze when Assad violated the agreement to turn over Syria’s WMDs.
What Congress needs to do is lay the groundwork for that moment when the next administration is confronted with evidence that Iran has violated the deal. There are many ways to do this.
A good place to start is to craft and pass legislation declaring that it is U.S. policy to promote Iran’s transition from terrorist tyranny to democracy. This is not some radical idea. In fact, the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which encouraged “efforts by the Iranian people to exercise self-determination” and expressed support for “peaceful pro-democracy forces in Iran,” became law in 2006, with strong bipartisan support. The law authorized the president “to provide financial and political assistance to eligible foreign and domestic individuals and groups that support democracy in Iran.”
The outgoing Bush administration requested $65 million in 2008 for the State Department’s Iran Democracy Fund. But in 2009, a new Congress and a new administration replaced that program with a watered-down $40-million initiative focused not on democracy-building in Iran, but rather on generic reforms across the Middle East. Moreover, when “peaceful pro-democracy forces” rose up in the summer of 2009 to protest Iran’s farce elections, the Obama administration failed to support what was alternately called the “Green Revolution” and the “Twitter Revolution.”
A little background may be helpful. As anti-regime demonstrators gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Tehran to protest the stolen election of June 12, 2009, the best the president could muster was a 162-word press statement. The statement was anything but a full-throated defense of democracy: “The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion…right now, we are bearing witness.”
Three days later, after taking heavy criticism for not saying enough to support the Iranian people, the president spoke about the situation. But his comments were a rehash of his initial statement and only reinforced his ambivalence. “The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people…The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future…If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent and not coercion…the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.”
These lawyerly comments were the very opposite of what’s expected from the leader of the Free World. Not only was the president’s style and tone wrong—his repeated use of “bear witness” was a sign of things to come for this bystander president—he was wrong on substance. Born amidst an act of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran has never sought the respect of the international community because it has never acted in a way deserving of respect. Nor has it ever respected the basic rights of the Iranian people. Moreover, it pays to recall that when the president delivered his milquetoast remarks, the Iranian people were not having a “debate”; they were being beaten and shot to death by a government with no political legitimacy—and they had already judged the actions of their government by rejecting a rigged election.
President Obama’s reaction was so bad that the protestors actually chanted, “Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?” At one point, the opposition sent the administration an eight-page memo asking for support and urging “the Free World” to “reward the brave people of Iran and simultaneously advance Western interests and world peace.” But the White House ignored that cry for help. The State Department even claimed that the opposition “made clear they did not desire financial or other support from the United States.”
The sad irony of the president’s ambivalence was that it answered his own rhetorical question, albeit in a manner his supporters wouldn’t have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during the 2008 campaign. Now we know the answer.
No one was calling on Washington to send in the 82nd Airborne to tilt the scales. But freedom-loving people—and their enemies—look to America for signals. President Obama’s signals were loud and clear in the summer of 2009. Passing new legislation—stronger and sharper—in support of democracy, human rights, religious freedom, women’s rights and free speech in Iran would send a very different signal.
It’s not only the Iranian people who feel abandoned by Washington. “Our allies feel abandoned,” Flynn reports. “There is a significant loss of trust in the U.S. government.”
Washington will need to reverse that with actions and arms.
Iran’s neighbors have already engaged in an unprecedented military-spending binge. Defense spending in the UAE has jumped 135 percent since 2007, in Saudi Arabia 112 percent. Saudi Arabia became the world’s biggest arms importer in 2014, and recently announced plans for a $20-billion expansion and modernization of its navy. Egypt is poised to secure two Mistral aircraft carriers France intended to sell to Russia before the Ukraine invasion. (These powerful and versatile ships massively expand the ability of Egypt and its Sunni allies in the Gulf to project power.) Earlier this year, Israel sought, and Washington approved, a $1.897-billion arms purchase. Ross advocates equipping Israel with B-52s and 30,000-pound bombs. Sen. Tom Cotton has proposed selling B-1s to Israel. Along with Israel and Turkey, the Gulf monarchies are expanding their missile-defense systems—and increasingly networking them together.
Interestingly, the Obama administration supports many of these initiatives, which raises an important question: If the deal makes our allies so unsettled that we have to rush military supplies to them, doesn’t that tell us all we need to know about the deal?
In any event, it’s time to reacquaint Iran with America’s deterrent strength. Washington could permanently and quite visibly preposition strike assets throughout the region: a squadron of F-22s in one of the Gulf states, a return to around-the-clock carrier deployments in the Persian Gulf, a dedicated Iran taskforce at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar, Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait or al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE .
To back all that up, Congress should reverse the disastrous defense cuts triggered by sequestration. This would allow the Navy to recapitalize the fleet and deploy its full complement of 11 aircraft carriers (as required by law); the Air Force to increase flight hours, reopen the F-22 production line and speed up development of the Long Range Strike Bomber; and the Army and Marines to boost end-strength back to levels necessary for deterrence and rapid deployment downrange.
More can and should be done beyond our field of vision: increasing reconnaissance flights over Iran; rotating B-2s to Diego Garcia on a regular basis; deploying next-generation versions of the Stuxnet virus that hobbled Iran’s nuclear program in 2008-10; beaming and counter-jamming freedom-oriented Farsi broadcasts and programming; providing covert support to the opposition. Just as President Reagan sent photocopiers and fax machines to Poland to aid Solidarity’s struggle against Moscow, Washington should send satellite dishes, laptops, smart phones and other technology to help the Iranian opposition organize and communicate.
“A little less détente,” as President Reagan said, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”