Immediately after the nuclear deal with Iran was concluded, the regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, declared that Tehran’s policies would remain “180 degrees” opposed to those of the United States. Even Secretary of State John Kerry, the deal’s handmaiden, described the ayatollah's latest remarks as “deeply troubling”.
The administration ignored the voices of its Middle East allies, a large swath of American citizens, and even Ayatollah Khamenei, who gave many ominous warnings in advance of the deal that the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism would not simply defang in exchange for economic and political concessions. But the most important voices the administration chose to sideline are of the Iranian people.
The educated and well-organized Iranian opposition says the deal will pave Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon. In fact, prior to the final announcement, more than 100,000 Iranian expatriates gathered in Paris, joined by hundreds of prominent international dignitaries, to express their opposition to the emerging deal.
No reasonable person questions whether President Obama actually wants the Iranian regime to take possession of a nuclear weapon. He clearly does not. But it is sensible to suggest that he may have an interest in kicking the can down the road. In fact, much of the administration’s Iran policy seems to hinge on the calculation that the regime will moderate its behavior once it is welcomed into the community of nations, including the voluntary surrender of its nuclear ambitions.
The Iranian people know better. It was the Iranian opposition after all that provided key intelligence to the world that identified previously unknown Iranian nuclear facilities and programs, starting in 2002. It was the opposition that supplied U.S. battle commanders with key information about Iran’s political and military meddling in Iraq.
Moderation in the Iranian regime is simply not a viable expectation as long as the ayatollahs’ power structure remains in place. The only long-term solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, meddling in regional affairs and human-rights abuses, is a totally new system of governance based on democracy and secularism.
The Iranian people — and the people of the region and beyond — do not have the luxury to kick the can down the road and hope for a later solution. After all, virtually every Iranian exile who attended the Paris rally still have friends and family members living under the thumb of the clerical regime. Virtually every one of them has lost friends and relatives as a result of the regime’s criminalization of dissent, torture of political prisoners, mass public executions and its extrajudicial killings and sponsorship of terrorism.
The main opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and its many supporters in Western countries — myself included —understand that a regime that can’t be trusted with the lives of its own people can’t be trusted with a weak nuclear deal. The deadly consequences of such an agreement will not come 10 years from now when Iran has the acknowledged ability to launch a nuclear weapon; they will come as soon as the current regime is granted legitimacy on the international stage and gains economic or political leverage over democratic nations, which will happen as soon as their coffers are filled with unfrozen assets and the oil flows unfettered.
If the administration can’t be bothered with the voice of the over 75 million Iranians, there is no shortage of American former officials, military officers, and academics who can attest to the power and legitimacy of the Iranian people and opposition working towards democracy. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and retired General George Casey are among them. All are men of unimpeachable integrity.
President Obama would do well to heed the serious, thoughtful and constructive criticisms about the nuclear deal. While the president’s focus on his legacy in Iran is understandable — Tehran is an existential challenge to the region and a menace to the world — the ultimate measure of his success there is whether or not he ennobles Iran’s people, or empowers its tyrants.
Gen. Hugh Shelton was the 14th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from 1997 to 2001.