It wasn’t long ago when the question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program topped the foreign policy agenda in Washington and other world capitals. The matter receded after the nuclear agreement went into effect last January, but inescapable signs are emerging that Iran will return to the agenda under the next president.
When world powers agreed on a plan to push back Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon by a decade, the most optimistic among the deal’s cheerleaders, including President Barack Obama, expressed cautious hope that during that period Iran will change for the better. Just before the agreement, Obama said, “It is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal we strengthen the hand of those moderate forces inside of Iran.”
Recent developments, however, suggest that the hoped-for moderation is not in the cards, at least not anytime soon.
Among many reasons for concern, the most discouraging of all occurred a few days ago, when the country’s Assembly of Experts chose its new speaker, selecting Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the most hardline among the hardliners to lead the organization that will choose the country’s next supreme leader. This is not just a blow to moderates and reformers. It all but ensures the country will remain in the hands of hardliners for years to come.
In Iran’s theocratic democracy, the group of Islamic clerics is supposed to oversee the Supreme Leader, the man who, in fact, rules the country, commanding the military, choosing the top judges, and keeping his hand on all the levers of control. While many, particularly in the West, incorrectly view the president as the country’s top leader, it is the Supreme Leader who wields overwhelming power and it is the Assembly of Experts who chooses him.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei’s health condition is unclear. He has already received treatment for prostate cancer. There is a real chance that he will be replaced during the two-year term of Jannati’s speakership.
Jannati’s views are well known, and they are alarming, dating back many years. In 1989 he lead an international campaign urging Muslims to support the fatwa calling for the assassination of the novelist Salman Rushdie after he wrote a book that angered the then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. In 2003, Jannati extolled Iraqis to kill U.S. troops by becoming suicide bombers. And when pro-democracy activists protested the rigged election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency, he said opposition activists should be executed. That same year he proposed someone should shoot then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Signs that Iran is moderating are hard to find. A glimmer of light seemed to cut through during March parliamentary elections, when men who only by Iranian standards could be called moderate made some gains. But even that election had Jannati’s fingerprints smeared over it. Jannati chaired the Guardian Council, which disqualified the vast majority of genuine moderates and reformist candidates.
Last week, in a meeting with the council a few days after Jannati’s election, Khamanei boasted of how the world “accepted Iran’s nuclear industry after they saw Iran’s might,” according to Iranian media. Earlier, nuclear program head Ala Akbar Salehi, announced Iran is making progress developing “civilian nuclear energy.” Clearly, nuclear work continues.
Iran is also pushing forward aggressively with its ballistic missile program. It already possesses missiles capable of reaching any country in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, and it delights in taunting about its intentions.
During a test launch in March, Iranians etched a message on a missile. It read, “Israel must be wiped off the Earth.” On May 19, a senior advisor to the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ahmad Karimpour, proclaimed that Iran has the ability to “raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes,” if the Supreme Leader orders it.
If moderation is hard to find in foreign policy, it is also elusive for Iranian citizens. Police in Tehran have deployed 7,000 undercover officers to enforce the government-imposed dress code. The code may seem a trivial matter, but it is a profound intrusion into the daily life of all women. And authorities have been cracking down on other “transgressions,” recently flogging dozens of students for attending a graduation party that included men and women.
No, Iran does not appear to be moderating. By all indications, the country is about to take its place near the top of the foreign policy agenda for the next president.