AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
When it comes to the electorate, the courts, or most foreign powers, the left rarely forgives an insult or grievance. Few on the left have forgiven Florida for the 2000 recount. Trump supporters are still being punished for their defiance in 2016. Even Putin, who had killed opponents and invaded the sovereign nation of Georgia in 2008, was okay in the Left’s books until he seemed to insult and dislike Hillary Clinton. That was beyond the pale.
Yet there is one exception to this rule, a country whose leaders are allowed to insult Democratic presidents with impunity – Iran. When it comes to Iran, the left’s response to deliberate snubs, open bad faith, and atrocities always seems to be, “May we have another?”
This phenomenon has become particularly clear in the liberal obsession with a nuclear deal. It seems no behavior on the part of the Iranian government or its president, Ebrahim Raisi, can break the determination of the Biden Administration to secure a “nuclear deal.” The administration continues to pursue a futile agreement with a clerical leadership which does not want a real deal, and which for structural reasons can never work with the United States in good faith. Biden is just the latest Democrat president not to get the message.
Tehran has tried almost everything to sink the deal. They have repeatedly escalated their demands when the Europeans and Americans have accepted them, refusing even face-saving compromises on past violations of IAEA agreements. While India, a major international partner, has been threatened by the United States with secondary sanctions for continuing to purchase Russian oil, Iran not only hosted Vladimir Putin in Tehran, but has been openly supplying Russia with drones for use against Ukraine. This is widely seen as a major reason why Russia is much more enthusiastic about a “nuclear deal” than Tehran, and Raisi is keeping the process in motion to please Moscow.
Raisi has certainly done everything possible to worsen relations with the United States, particularly when he traveled to New York City to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations this month. These trips are usually public relations stunts to win over American elite opinion by presenting a “moderate” impression of Iran’s leadership. Raisi, however, went out of his way to do the opposite.
In a 60 Minutes interview, for example, Raisi chose to opine on the authenticity of the Holocaust: “There are some signs that it happened. If so, they should allow it to be investigated and researched,” the Iranian President told CBS. The move sparked condemnation, which the White House belatedly joined, with Biden National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeting “This statement from Iran’s president is outrageous and should be universally condemned.” But Sullivan seemed to miss the significance of Raisi’s remark, as he did with Raisi’s refusal of an interview with CNN anchor Christine Amanpour unless she wore a headscarf, a demand even former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not make.
Iran’s apologists are quick to point to the existence of an Iranian Jewish community with token representation in Iran’s parliament, the Majlis. This, they argue, proves Iran is not antisemitic, only anti-Israel or anti-Zionist. But obviously, this argument is false, or at least presents a distinction without a difference. For Iran’s regime, “Zionism” represents a global network of influence stretching across media, academia, governments, and civil society acting as a global conspiracy against them. If not every Jew is a Zionist, everything that goes wrong for the Iranian regime is ascribed to Zionism, including demands for democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, and even Christian missionary activity.
On a more pertinent level to policy, Raisi’s invocation of the Holocaust was deliberate. Raisi was fully aware of how similar remarks turned Ahmadinejad into an international pariah. He knew what the reaction would be of the U.S. political class. If anything, he must have expected a larger one, given the clerical regime’s belief in an all-powerful Zionist lobby. The intention was to deliberately turn Iran into a pariah, force Biden to condemn the remarks, and make it harder to pass a nuclear deal through Congress even if Iran could be cornered into signing.
Lest there be any doubt, Raisi made clear what he thought of closer relations with the United States. “No, I don’t think that such a meeting would happen,” Raisi said when asked whether he would be open to meeting with Biden while in New York. “I don’t believe having a meeting or a talk with him will be beneficial.”
The scenes out of Tehran and other cities, showing protestors burning Hijabs, calling for death to the dictator and in turn being beaten or murdered by police indicate that Raisi may be doing Biden a favor by resisting a meeting. Iran is currently witnessing mass protests which broke out following the death in police custody, almost universally believed to be due to torture, of Mahsa Amini, a 22- year old Kurdish-Iranian woman, for violating Iran’s dress code laws. Three police have been killed, and the Iranian government has cut off internet access in Tehran and large parts of the country.
The United States’ position has been restrained, likely because Biden does not wish to jeopardize the prospects of his dream “nuclear deal”, an illustration of why Iran has not entirely killed the process. But these events and Raisi’s behavior illustrate why the process cannot possibly succeed in accomplishing the goals Biden and his team desire any more than it could under Obama. They badly misjudge the Iranian leadership.
Both Biden and Obama see Iran as a “mixed-regime” with some pluralistic institutions, where isolation at the hands of the United States is used by hardliners to justify their own rule and the repression which comes with it. In doing so, they misjudge both the major forces in Iranian politics and the dynamics between them. They see a spectrum with “pro-Western” liberals on one end, hardline fundamentalists on the other, and in-between “pragmatists” whose hostility is driven by a lack of trust in the West. In this view, Iranian hostility is explained by the decision of “pragmatists” to align with “fundamentalists” due to some U.S. action or provocation. Under Obama, they believed it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech that had paved the way for the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Biden and his team seem to see Raisi as a reaction to Donald Trump’s tenure, which they blame for discrediting the policies of former President Rouhani just as Obama blamed Bush for undermining President Mohamad Khatami (1997-2005).
The Iranian regime, as illustrated by the sheer scale and violence of mass protests in 2009, 2019-2020, and today, is despised as a narrow dictatorship by the vast majority of the population. Any real opposition is crushed. Participation in elections is only allowed by the elite. Occasionally factions within the elite for their own reasons will try to utilize the discontent of the public as a weapon in internal struggles. Supreme Leader Khamenei allowed Khatami to run in 1997 to break the power of civilian “conservative” politicians, much as he used Rouhani to break Ahmadinejad. The intra-elite differences are largely personal or clannish, with many of the prominent clerical families intermarrying for centuries. In this respect, Iranian Shia clerical politics bears a closer resemblance to Game of Thrones than it does to any sort of politics in the West.
In such an environment, actual fixed policy or ideological positions are a liability, as they create a target for opponents. The Iranian nuclear program and hostility to Israel are just such items. No faction can afford to expend the political resources required to keep any deal they signed even if they wanted to, which none do.
While many of these factions and clans despise each other, often viscerally for alleged murders of relatives, they are nevertheless united in defense of the regime. They all understand that, as much as they might dislike each other, the Iranian people hate them all, and if there were ever genuine elections or a real revolution, all of the clerical factions would find themselves hanging. The result is that when those “pragmatists” who did win office on the back of “deals” with the West were facing the choice between political extinction or calling on the support of the people, they always chose to go quietly, as Khatami did in 2005 and Rouhani in 2021. When 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (whose reputation as a loose-cannon and rogue going back to the 1980s likely contributed to why the election was rigged against him) broke this covenant, he was utterly crushed by a united Iranian elite.
The only value to Tehran of a deal with the United States is if the alternative is a concerted effort to overthrow the regime. Iran faced that under Donald Trump, which is one reason it advertised its interest in resuming a deal so widely to European diplomats. Joe Biden, however, by making clear he is willing to bend over backwards to avoid pressuring Tehran in order to achieve a deal, has removed any incentive for Raisi and his allies to actually accept one. The United States is already refraining from imposing sanctions on Iran for backing Putin or its open violations of existing agreements. At this point, a deal would only add legal obligations that Iran would be forced to pretend to meet, which would cost Raisi political capital at home – which, with longtime Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on his deathbed, Raisi has no wish to expend.
Raisi is well aware that Putin and Xi Jinping support their allies, no matter how unsavory those allies behave at home. The United States imposes standards. As long as Raisi is aligned with Russia and China, they will back whatever he does during the succession. By contrast, the United States would force Raisi to play by the rules, and would offer zero support if he were forced to resort to extra-constitutional means to stay in power. His rivals would also then be free to appeal to Russia and China.
This dynamic is why the U.S. is always doomed to be insulted by the winners and wooed by the losers in Iranian domestic politics. Russia and China will always be the favored allies of any domestic actors within Iranian clerical politics. Only the losers, those who failed to secure Russian or Chinese backing, will seek out the United States. This means the United States will always end up either backing losers, or those with its backing will lose. Raisi, with Russian and Chinese backing, is primarily concerned with keeping the U.S. out, and is largely continuing talks on behalf of Russia, which benefits from sanctions running through Tehran.
There is merit to the belief that a free and democratic Iran would be a pivotal American ally in a new Middle East. But this cannot be created through playing nuclear Game of Thrones with clerical politicians. It can only be accomplished by supporting the Iranian people and a real challenge to the system. Raisi, through his behavior at the UN last week in New York, was making that clear to Biden and Sullivan. For some reason, Democrats just cannot take a hint when it comes to Iran.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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