The one of you who is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her
Eight consecutive administrations enabled Iran.
I don’t talk about my personal life, but there is a personal note at the bottom of this post that I’d like people to read.
It was Jimmy Carter who was the President when the Islamic Revolution happened. Despite the chants of “Death to America,” Carter sought to accommodate the new regime and maintained relations. In return, he was handed with a hostage crisis that cost him his job.
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Then came Ronald Reagan. On the eve of his inauguration, Iran released the hostages. But that was the beginning and the end of Iran’s cooperation. In Lebanon, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, likely with Iran’s nod and encouragement, caused another hostage crisis. So desperate was Reagan to free the hostages that, against the advice of his Secretaries of State and Defense, he designed an arms for hostages scheme. Iran, desperate for arms to continue its war with Iraq, managed to get Hezbollah to release the hostages. But the point was taken: Bad behavior is rewarded with treats.
The next In the 1990s, Iran’s nuclear weapons program would increasingly become the dominant concern of the Iran policy world, without Iran’s decrease in other malign activities. The response of every single U.S. administration was gaining leverage via sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiation table while tying their hopes to the elusive hope for change in Iran, first through the reform movement and then for a revolution, but nothing beyond hope.
In Tehran, the rulers were watching to take note. They manipulated the United States as long as they could with the reformist-hardliner game, without ever giving up on the nuclear weapons program. It is worth noting that it was during the tenure of reformist Mohammad Khatami that Iran began to seriously invest in nuclear weapons. On the other hand, they watched the United States to call a North Korean nuclear weapon unacceptable, only coming to accept it. While they watched Muammar al-Ghaddafi who was deposed with U.S. help after giving up his program. The point was clear: Get a nuke, and stay in power perpetually.
In the 2000s, Iranians initially feared George W. Bush after he started two wars. But those two wars that scared the Iranians ended up exposing the Americans. The United States became accommodating of Iran in Iraq. Despite the killing of at least hundreds of Americans by Iran, there never was a response. The administration was too busy in Iraq and Afghanistan to risk an escalation with Iran, while the U.S. public had turned against foreign policy activism and military operations. So the Iranians realized that then was the time to escalate their nuclear program without fear.
The Obama administration became even more accommodating of Iran, allowing Iran to help Bashar al-Assad in his genocidal cling to power and withdrawing from Iraq. But the President and his subordinates kept repeating that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable.
U.S. leaders kept issuing empty threats that they would take Iran’s program out by force but they never even came close to it, and the Iranians never took them seriously. It was the Israelis they took seriously for a while. Iran never breached the 240 kg of enriched uranium redline that Bibi Netanyahu drew.
Finally, the Obama administration reached an agreement with Iran. Sanctions were lifted, and Iran’s frozen assets, worth a quarter of its GDP, were released. But as President Barack Obama said it himself, the breakout time for a nuclear-armed Iran at the end of the agreement in 2030 would have been zero even if the Iranians abided by the agreement.
The Trump administration revisited the issue. There were internal disagreements between those who wanted to remain in the agreement and those who wanted to pull out. Eventually, the President announced that the United States would withdraw. Sanctions were back—and more than before. The combination of unprecedented sanctions—Iran became the most sanctioned country in the world until Russia beat the record this year—and Iran’s own mismanagement of the economy created an economic catastrophe inside Iran with an angry population that blames its own government more than any foreign sanction. In return, Iran escalated its nuclear weapons program.
Donald Trump would have been prudentially justified to withdraw from the Iran Deal if he had a better alternative. But he didn’t. Especially after calling off strikes against Iran in 2019, with jets in the air minutes away from reaching Iran’s borders, the administration had no credibility for the use of force. The Israelis, on the other hand, had lost their credibility too after years of threatening without doing. The sabotage operations had succeeded in being an obstacle to Iran’s program but not a stop to it. America had become a one-trick pony. All it had was sanctions, no matter who was the President. By the time Trump left office, Iran had never been closer to a nuclear bomb. And Joe Biden has proven to be more of the same. He has relaxed some sanctions as a gesture of goodwill. But overall, all he has is sanctions and diplomacy.
For four decades, Americans have failed to impose a punishment on the regime and the decision-makers. Sanctions are good in limiting the power of the state, but they have failed to deter the regime from doing anything. And the regime has learned how to live with sanctions without having to stop its malign activities in the region, from support for proxies to developing nuclear weapons.
Administrations from both parties have operated on a false assumption that the regime in Iran is primarily motivated by financial motives, or that financial pressure on the people is enough to spark a revolution. That tells you what fools have been making the final decisions. (This is not to say that there have not been very smart people working on Iran policy in the U.S. government. There have been. Some of them will read this post. (Hi!) Just that the ultimate decision never rested with the small number who understood the regime, and such people rarely, probably never, occupied a principal seat at the National Security Council.)
If you are a betting person, you should put money on an Iranian nuke. And you should thank those in the Iran policy community for the money you would cash in. They never understood the nature of the regime, appreciated its incentive structure, or conceded that the leaders in Iran are brutes, not humans. Let’s go through each in order.
The nature of Iran’s regime is a corrupt, Islamic theocracy which has to balance ideology and corruption to hold onto power. On the one hand, the regime doesn’t ideologically believe that wealth is of much importance, and it frequently propagates how Shi’ism’s fourteen saints (Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, and the twelve imams) lived modest lives. The minority of the people that supports the regime, and to whom the regime is accountable to, does not mind financial troubles for the nation much. They don’t like it, but they are willing to pay that price to keep an Islamist theocracy in Iran. Those are the true believers.
This brings us to (other) incentives of the regime. First there is survival. For the decision-makers, survival is the ultimate good. The fall of the regime will likely be dystopian. Think of the French Revolution. Blood will fill the streets. The Iranian people whom you see protesting on the streets are quite clear about how much they want revenge. In the best case scenario, everybody in the elite will be shot. In a likelier scenario, which the regime fears and the people are not coy about suggesting, the bloodthirstiness will reach the people in medium ranks and even their families. So when I say survival, I don’t just mean the survival of the regime but also the survival of each individual within the regime.
Next, you have money as an incentive. Iran might be getting poorer, but the elite is doing perfectly fine. The families of the rulers live in the United States, Canada, and England living filthy rich lives. Those still in Iran live even richer lives and also are above the law. There is no rational incentive for them to give up such lives. There is every rational incentive to defend the regime doing whatever it takes.
Just like any other totalitarian dictatorship, a mix of ideology, corruption, and fear mobilizes different groups to defend the Islamic Republic. But what is different with Iran is a certain kind of cynicism about humans.
The Soviet Union fell because its leaders became disillusioned with Marxism when they saw communism’s failure with their own eyes. But Islamists don’t become disillusioned because they will have to wait for afterlife for disillusionment. And the Soviet leaders, by 1991, were not worried about mass executions in the post-Soviet world. Those fears in Iran have been increasing. "Death to America” has been replaced by “Death to Khamenei.”
But this is largely a problem created after 2009 and the suppression of the Green Movement. Since then, Americans hope that the regime will fall because people hate it so much, though the regime will remain intact precisely because people hate it so much. Before 2009, they hoped that the regime would fall too because they listened to dissidents too much. Anti-regime sentiments were not that strong in the 1990s and 2000s. If you asked an average Iranian, “do you want regime change?” they would probably say yes. If you asked “do you want a revolution?” they would say no. If you asked “will you risk your life for regime change?” they would say hell no. But that’s not the picture Iranian dissidents outside of Iran depicted. Over and over again, U.S. administrations were allured by the hopes for the fall of the Islamic Republic. As Steve Hadley, George W. Bush’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, said, the administration’s view was that there were two clocks in Iran, one for a nuke, and one for regime change, and the question was which one happens first. Except the regime change clock was not ticking at all. And the United States was not doing anything to make the clock tick.
Which brings us to the last proposition, that the regime’s leaders are not human, but brutes. Again, here I invoke what I said earlier. The regime’s decision makers are ultimately and almost entirely motivated by self-preservation by any means. That’s a human brute in Hobbes’s state of nature, not a civilized human. In 2009, the regime arrested, tortured, raped, killed, assassinated, and executed protesters and people within its own ranks sympathetic with the protesters. A few years later, it assisted in a genocide against the Syrian people to keep an ally in power, but also to demonstrate to the Iranian people its capabilities to destroy a country and killing people to remain in power. This was a point the regime’s propagandists frequently convey to the Iranian people, citing Syria. In 2019, when protests erupted, in one week, at least 1,500 people were killed, with security forces opening automatic rifle fire from helicopters. Since then, people of all ages, even teenagers, have been arrested, tortured, and executed for crimes against the regime. That reports about the regime’s torturing political prisoners get out is not due to leaks by patriots. It is the regime’s own doing to discourage people from protests.
It is not that you cannot reason with the regime. Just that you need to understand its nature, incentives, and line of reasoning. The United States has spent four decades misunderstanding all three. No matter what administration was in charge, ultimately, they thought that Iran would respond to financial incentives, while only fear of death—for the regime and for each individual—triggers a feedback. And no administration has managed to hurt the ruling elite in a way that would prompt the leaders to cave. All they have had so far has been sanctions, which have limited Iran’s capabilities in achieving its objectives, but they haven’t stopped Iran, and they won’t. Iran will become a nuclear-armed state, and we are damned to live with the consequences because we never understood Iran. Barack Obama should be blamed for entering the Iran Deal, and Donald Trump should be faulted for withdrawing from it without any plan. And Joe Biden will be responsible too because it looks like that he has conceded that life with a nuclear-armed Iran is livable and given up on stopping it. He’s up for a rude awakening!
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A Personal Note: I am not religious, but I feel so powerless right now that I am clinging on anything. I found out this week that my Dad has cancer. I’m an only child, and he and I are incredibly close. I have seen him once eight years ago since living Iran ten years ago. I have to see him once more. I need to hug my Dad one more time. Please pray for him and us that this would happen. I cannot go back to Iran, and he cannot travel right now because of his condition. His treatment and his body’s response will determine whether he can ever get on a plane again. So keep us in your thoughts and prayers.
My Dad was a member of the communist Tudeh Party in Iran. You could imagine all the arguments he and I have had over the years and all the fun humor and even pranks. In grad school, I had a tiny studio that didn’t have space for a couch. I did everything in my bed, including when I talked with him. I had a poster of Ronald Reagan above my bed. It was there only to annoy him. He made a comment every time about that “warmonger” who wanted to destroy the world. As opposed to Nikita Khrushchev, whom he called “a man of peace.” He spent five years in prison. He’d tell us stories—in good spirit and with laughter in a way that would make us laugh, believe it or not—about being tortured. Every time, I would respond, “well, you were a communist, so you deserved it.” He’d take it like a champ! Well, he’d call me a few names. But we had fun! He’s the funniest man I’ve met. Seriously, have you ever heard somebody who would tell stories about being tortured that would make everybody laugh their butts off?
The communist-liberal civil war in our family was ever-present. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, so it’s expensive and difficult to find. We usually had vodka in the house, and he would give me some when I was a teenager—sometimes more than some! Until I had scotch, the crown jewel of capitalism! After my first sip, I said, “this is much better than vodka!” He responded, “what else should I expect from a filthy capitalist?”
Our relationship is not uncommon in Iran. Many children of communist parents resent their parents for ousting the Shah, bringing upon us the Islamic Republic, and hating communism altogether while envying the blessings of the free world. But most of them are casual observers of politics or even activists. Not many of the parent were as senior as my Dad was, meeting Fidel Castro or going to Vietnam, befriending East German leaders and hanging out with senior party officials in Moscow. Not many of the children ended up in America doing what I do, befriending the entire neocon mafia and working for them! It is extraordinary that our differences have made us more affectionate for each other. That’s the parent-child bond, I guess.
In his more honest moments, he’d point to his own hypocrisy and the shortcomings of communism. I guess that was his concession that true communism has never been tried. He’d talk about how when he was a student in West Germany, they’d visit East Berlin and find it gross and disgusting. He hated Hugo Chavez. Not because Chavez was a dictator. No. Because he was a Catholic communist, which he called “embarrassing.”
I talked with him after I found out—they had known for a few months but hid it from me. He was in cheerful mood at the hospital in post-op. He was complaining to me that my Mom forgot for a third time to bring him his shaving machine. Bears in Iran are associated with piety and the regime, two things he has always hated, and two things that landed him in prison. So, for the first time in his life, he hasn’t shaved in two or three days, and that’s his biggest concern right now!
I’m my father’s son in the best way possible, which is weird to say for a neoconservative son of a devout Marxist—though those two actually go hand in hand usually! I love laughing, and I hate taking life too seriously. I like a good drink with a tipsy audience that would laugh at anything (my Dad’s trick to get you laughing). And I can’t think of the consequences of my political actions so long I think I’m on the right side. In the 1960s, he and a bunch of other Iranian students in Austria occupied the Iranian embassy in Vienna and kept the diplomats hostages. It was not to harm anybody. They just wanted to make the headlines so the Europeans would know that Shah was unpopular. They were arrested and released without charges a few days later. But a national newspaper published their names. Dad could never go back until the revolution. In 2016, I cosigned a letter with 39 other dissidents to President-elect Trump to impose sanctions on Iran over human rights. Days later, my name and picture were published by a regime newspaper in Iran, and I could not go back ever again. My Dad started yelling at me, until I reminded him of his own story. He was disarmed, laughing, he said, “well, you are supposed to learn from my mistakes!” Like father, like son.
But above all, he taught me to by my own person, not his son. Of course I took pride in being a communist when I was 10 because my Dad was one. He told me to stop. Partly, he was worried that I’d get him in trouble. But also, as he told me, “you don’t even know what communism is.” So he started explaining it to me, in kiddy language. “So you can have whatever you need?” I asked. “Yes,” he responded. “So who makes things?” I asked. “People do!” he said. “But why would people work if they can have things for free?” I asked again. He said, “well, because that’s the right thing to do. And because you want help others. And because you love your country and community and want to help.” I responded, “Dad, I’ll never work! Nobody will ever work! I won’t work if I don’t need money.” It was my communist father that made me a capitalist at the age of 10 (maybe 11?) by arguing with me instead of being content with my conformity. He never regretted it. He’s proud of his only child, the evil, capitalist, anti-communist neocon that I am. And I need to tell him how much I love him, how proud I am of him for going into prison for his stupid and wrong convictions, but coming out never becoming cynical, with his mind and spirit intact, full of love and laughter, filled with hope, working hard to pay for his son’s American dream he had fought against for the first four decades of his life. So please, pray for him, the bourgeois communist that he is. I still need my debate partner.
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