Reaching out to Tehran in 2016 would be for the worse

As we enter into 2016, some members of the foreign policy community are looking forward to a year of new relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nuclear agreement or so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), finalized in Vienna on July 14, has reportedly cleared its main hurdles on the way toward being implemented by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China. 

There is now a steady push for foreign investment in Iran, culminating in state visits between the regime and major European powers. January will see the most significant of these to date, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits France and Italy, in large part to finalize trade deals. 

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These developments both explain and justify the Obama administration’s notion that the JCPOA will help facilitate a moderating trend inside the Iranian regime. Yet numerous signs suggest otherwise. Tehran is today no more trustworthy, nor less anti-American, and no more humane toward its own people. 

Much has been made of the decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing body to close the file on past military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Those who favor rapprochement and expanded trade have seen fit to spin this as certification that Iran has changed its ways.  But the reality is very far from this.

The IAEA’s final report noted that the Islamic Republic had maintained a coordinated nuclear weapons program for longer than Western governments had previously suspected. It also pointed out that its findings emerged in spite of consistent Iranian efforts to stonewall the investigation. This clearly undermines the notion that Iran under the presidency of Rouhani has grown more transparent or trustworthy. The U.S. and other IAEA governors nevertheless voted to close the file, with the stated explanation that focus must now be placed on the future rather than the past. 

Sure, we do have to focus on the future, but those who do not learn from their past mistakes may be destined to repeat it. And that, with respect to the Iranian regime is a frightful prospect, both for the people of the country and nations around the world.  If we persist in ignoring Iran’s present obfuscations with the hope of oft promised but not delivered future cooperation, what else will the mullahs get away with? If we now again choose to ignore past misbehavior in the nuclear sphere, are we not ignoring Iran’s past (and present) militarism, its hostage-taking of Americans, its gross human rights abuses, and its support for international terrorism? In fact, all indications are that this is exactly what the West has been doing. 

Iran’s malign influence in the broader Middle East is expanding by leaps and bounds, yet some in the West are salivating over short-term economic windfall.  In many ways, the apparent disregard for what is right is encouraging Iran to behave as it always has: kill more Iranians, export Islamic fundamentalism, and maintain (or clandestinely improve) its nuclear capabilities.  All the while, the Obama administration appears to consider Iran an ally in the fight against the Islamic State. This latter approach is indeed de facto support for terrorism; as terrorist proxies, like Hezbollah, carry out many of Iranian sponsored operations.  

According to the Iranian opposition and human rights activists, more than 2,000 Iranians, including dissidents as well as ethnic and religious minorities, have been executed during Rouhani’s tenure.  These executions represent the highest (both in number and in rate) use of state oppression power of the past 25 years.  

The danger that Iranian militarism be directed against Western targets is real and not without precedent. The two Iranian ballistic missile tests that took place last fall are Ayatollahs’ flamboyant reminders to the West of their perpetual ill will. Despite United Nation’s certification that at least one of the recent ballistic missile tests was in violation of its Security Council resolution, the advocates for rapprochement remain undaunted.  

Nuclear deal or not, the Iranian regime represents the world’s only true theocracy that has spread a negative influence in the region, continued the brutal repression of its own citizens, and acted a sectarian epicenter of extremist Islamist thought. Any offer of diplomatic and business opportunities to Rouhani when he visits Italy and France later this month should be predicated on a halt in such nefarious behavior. 

We cannot stake the future on hope alone – not when the facts tell us otherwise. As long as the Iranian regime's bellicose rhetoric, terror machinery, and abysmal rights record remain unchanged, a better alternative for 2016 would be to support the Iranian people’s aspirations for democratic change. 

Sadeghpour is the political director of the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIACUS).

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