Sometimes, America’s enemies are easier to read than “Dick and Jane,” which should make policymaking fairly straightforward. We knew that the Nazis planned on conquering Western Europe, so we fought Germany once Japan drew us into World War II. We know that Venezuela wants to maintain its centrally planned economy and authoritarian political system, so we draw closer to neighboring Colombia. And yet, even though we know that Iran wants to empower its strain of Shia fundamentalism by building a nuclear weapon, American diplomats have shown a troubling willingness to engage with Tehran, a topic Jeremi Suri took on in his column last week.
Now that the second negotiation deadline has come and gone, a few points have become abundantly clear. Iran is not willing to abandon its uranium enrichment program, which it claims it will use to develop nuclear energy — a position that makes no sense for an oil-rich state with its eye set on regional hegemony. It won’t let international monitors inspect its facilities to prove they’re being used for peaceful purposes. It has shown its religious intolerance by hosting several anti-Semitic conferences in recent years, and its state-run PressTV station regularly publishes anti-American propaganda on subjects ranging from Vladimir Putin to Sept. 11. Simply put, Iran is not a friend.
But no matter how clearly Tehran articulates its intentions, the Obama administration insists that the U.S. can stop Iran’s nuclear program through negotiations. Worse still, the U.S. is throwing away its most significant bargaining chips, calling into question how much it can really gain through diplomacy. When Iranian civilians took to the streets in protest during the Arab Spring, the U.S. did not lend its support to the secular revolutionaries, even as it promoted their more religiously motivated counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. American leaders have also refused to tighten economic sanctions and have taken military action against Iranian rivals like ISIS, This appeasement of the autocratic Iranian regime is a dangerous move on President Obama’s part.
The problem isn’t limited to Iran, either. For decades, the U.S. has supported the repressive monarchy of Saudi Arabia in spite of its support for militant groups and its abysmal human rights record. This close relationship has torpedoed American credibility in the Middle East, for good reason. After all, how can a Pakistani woman take solace in America’s fight against the Taliban while the U.S.-backed Saudi monarchy still bans women from driving, testifying in court, or appearing in public without abiding by a strict religious dress code? Similarly, why should a Shiite in Syria believe that America cares about his civil liberties while Saudi Shiites can be stoned for apostasy? When so many Middle Easterners consider the U.S. meddling and hypocritical, fighting terrorism becomes challenging and maintaining close ties with democracies virtually impossible.
It stands to reason, then, that the U.S. must take a harsher stance if it has any hope of halting Iran’s nuclear program. There are a few solutions that stop short of military threats while still placing greater pressure on the Iranian regime. Given the role that economic sanctions played in getting Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, tougher penalties might motivate its leaders to make some critical concessions. The U.S. could also threaten to scale back its war against ISIS, which benefits both Iran and its closest regional ally, the Syrian government. And as long as Iran continues its freeze on uranium enrichment during negotiations, the U.S. could try stalling until more agreeable leaders take control in Tehran. Iranian religious elders will likely select a new Supreme Leader in 2016, and it’s worth monitoring whether they choose another anti-Western fundamentalist like the incumbent Ali Khamenei or a reformer in President Hassan Rouhani’s mold. There’s also hope that with a little international support, popular uprisings against the regime could succeed in secularizing Iran’s government.
Supporting repressive regimes might promote American interests in the short run, but it’s a deeply unreliable long-term tactic. Fortunately, those allies that eschew openly anti-American positions like Egypt and Saudi Arabia don’t pose a direct threat to American civilians. But Iran is a different story. Negotiating with an explicitly hostile Tehran does little to bolster America’s homeland security. From a more regional perspective, trusting Iran to comply with an agreement places millions of innocent lives in the Middle East in the hands of a fundamentalist government with clearly stated genocidal goals. As Suri wrote last week, trust between the U.S. and foreign governments is paramount to achieving American goals. But it’s better to go it alone than to put blind faith in an untrustworthy partner.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.