Iran’s Impossible Nuclear Demand

And who are America’s real allies in the country ruled by ayatollahs?

AP/Vahid Salemi, file
President Raisi at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. AP/Vahid Salemi, file

Iran’s president has now made clear that the 2015 nuclear deal that President Obama had hoped would be his foreign policy legacy will not be revived. In an interview on “60 Minutes,” Ebrahim Raisi said he was seeking a guarantee that no future American president would withdraw from the deal as President Trump did in 2018.

“We cannot trust the Americans because of the behavior that we have already seen from them,” Mr. Raisi said. “That is why if there is no guarantee, there is no trust.” His would be an impossible demand for any U.S. president, but particularly for President Biden.

In 2015, Senator Cotton and 46 other Republican senators signed a letter to Iran’s supreme leader threatening that a Republican president could vacate any Iran nuclear agreement that is not ratified as a treaty. If anything, the GOP’s opposition to the 2015 nuclear bargain has only intensified in the last seven years.

Mr. Biden and his advisers have made no serious effort to assuage worries from Republicans or even fellow Democrats. In June, convinced that Iran was not serious about the negotiations, Senator Menendez said the U.S. administration should end talks in Vienna. Nonetheless, as recently as last month, Biden officials have said they were quietly optimistic that the 2015 deal could be revived.

One element in all of this is that Iran’s regime is guilty of what intelligence analysts call, “mirror imaging.” Mr. Raisi, in asking for a guarantee that a future administration would not withdraw from the nuclear deal, is assuming that America functions the way Iran does. Iran’s domestic intelligence service and semi-official state militia have killed, tortured, and detained its political opposition since the original revolution in 1979. Mr. Biden does not have that option.

Indeed, Mr. Raisi himself was one of four judges in 1988 who sentenced thousands of political dissidents to death by hanging or firing squad. In January an open letter from human rights lawyers and former U.N. officials urged the U.N. high commissioner for human rights at the time, Michelle Bachelet, to investigate the 1988 massacre.

Mr. Raisi has defended his actions. “Anybody who commits a crime in Iran stands trial in official courts of law and they receive punishments for what they did,” he told “60 Minutes.” “They were assassinating people. And what happened to them was exactly proportionate to what they did.”

On Tuesday, the National Union for Democracy in Iran will announce a lawsuit in U.S. courts against Mr. Raisi for his role in torturing and detaining Iranians and Westerners. “This lawsuit is an important step for justice denied by the Islamic Republic for Iranians,” the group’s policy director, Cameron Khansarinia, told me. He added that the national union was among several Iranian-American groups that campaigned for the state department to deny Mr. Raisi a visa to travel to Turtle Bay this week to address the UN General Assembly.

Is Raisi the Next Khamenei?  

When Mr. Raisi addresses the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, U.S. analysts will be paying especially close attention. Mr. Raisi is widely considered one of two frontrunners to replace the ailing supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that Mr. Khamenei underwent surgery last week for extreme stomach pain and high fever. According to the Times and other reports from opposition groups, Mr. Khamenei canceled all public events for two weeks on account of the surgery. On Saturday, after the Times issued its report, the 83-year-old ayatollah appeared briefly while wearing a mask to address a group of students.

Reports in Tehran have persisted for nearly 20 years about Mr. Khamenei’s health. In 2014, he underwent prostate surgery. He is said to smoke opium to treat pain associated with a limp arm.

Yet there is little hard information on the supreme leader’s health from a notoriously secretive regime.

One of Washington’s shrewdest analysts of Iran, Alireza Nader, told me over the weekend that he doesn’t trust any public reporting on Mr. Khamenei’s health. Mr. Nader has been analyzing scenarios for succession in Iran for nearly 15 years. At Rand he published a monograph on the topic in 2009.

“Khamenei and the revolutionary guard will pick someone who meets their ideological and political requirements, but given Iran’s instability it’s hard to see the Iranian people accepting any supreme leader,” Mr. Nader said. “The American people should understand that it’s the Iranian people who are their real allies.”  

Recent trends support this view. As I reported in 2018, a Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, has worked for a constitutional referendum that would eliminate the office of the supreme leader altogether and ratify respect for human rights in the country’s national charter.

Over the weekend protests throughout the country broke out after a Kurdish woman arrested by the regime’s morality police for not properly wearing her Hijab, Mahsa Amini, died while in custody. On the internet, many women have made YouTube videos showing them taking off their Hijabs in defiance of the morality police. 

As Mr. Biden watches the health of his Iranian adversary, he would do well to also keep an eye on the unrest in the streets. Whoever emerges from a likely power struggle after the ayatollah dies will still be despised by millions of Iranians, America’s real allies.


Mr. Lake is a contributing editor to Commentary Magazine and the host of the Re-Education Podcast. He was a syndicated columnist for Bloomberg between 2014 and 2022 and a former reporter at the New York Sun, the Daily Beast and the Washington Times.

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