Speaking on CBS on Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued that support for Iranian protesters and continuing negotiations with Iran over its illegal nuclear weapons were not mutually exclusive.
“If we can succeed in that effort,” he said, “the world, America, and our allies will be safer. And that will not stop us in any way from pushing back and speaking out on Iran’s brutal repression of its citizens and its women.”
Sullivan is wrong. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not an ordinary military charged with territorial defense. Rather, as defender of the Islamic Revolution and its values, it sees external enemies and freedom-minded Iranians as equally threatening. In practice, the Revolutionary Guard not only controls the nuclear program and dominates the Iranian economy, but it also coordinates domestic repression. As the Biden administration approves ever more concessions, reverses maximum pressure, and declines to enforce existing sanctions, it pumps money into the Islamic Republic’s system of repression. Biden administration officials might give the occasional word of support for human rights in Iran, but this is no more meaningful to Iranian women risking everything in the streets or the clerical leadership seeking their submission than beseeching the Taliban to respect women helps Afghans.
The only way to empower the Iranian people and end the nuclear program is to ensure the victory of the Iranian people over the regime. To end the nuclear program by rewarding a regime that has constantly lied only encourages more cheating. In effect, Sullivan, who initiated the secret Iranian talks as a Hillary Clinton aide more than a decade ago, loses sight of the forest through the trees and confuses the process of negotiations with the desired result.
The United States has been down this path before. As the Soviet Union began to crumble, diplomats and advisers to President George H.W. Bush who had spent their entire careers negotiating arms control pacts with Soviet counterparts counseled Bush to oppose Ukrainian independence. Their short-sighted logic: If the Soviet Union — America’s chief adversary for the past half-century — collapsed, then the agreements they had negotiated might also become moot. Speaking to Ukrainian lawmakers, Bush delivered what is remembered today as the “Chicken Kyiv” speech. “We support the struggle in this great country for democracy and economic reform,” Bush declared. “Yet freedom is not the same as independence,” he warned. Bush proceeded to reference ties with the Soviet Union and drew parallels to the coming together of American states after the failures and mutual suspicions present in the first and second Continental Congresses.
Bush was wrong to prioritize the preservation of a failed system of repression over the potential freedom of millions of people.
Similarly, the problem with Iran was never simply its potential nuclear arsenal, but rather the regime that would wield such weapons. The Iranian people have always been far more moderate than the regime that claims to represent them. Rather than engage a dying regime, Sullivan should recognize that the Islamic Republic’s demise might resolve more than Biden administration diplomacy ever could. Not only might a normalized Iran recognize that nuclear weapons are not in its interest, but the ideological imperative for its terrorism, destabilization of neighbors in the name of “export of revolution,” and the repression of women, ethnic, and religious minorities might soon end.
President Joe Biden should not repeat the mistakes of Bush, and Sullivan should not channel Bush’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. They should instead recognize that ill-timed and ill-considered diplomacy does more harm than good. Instead, listen to the people and let freedom ring.