Under Pressure

11.22.14 11:45 AM ET

The Nuclear Deal That Iran’s Regime Fears Most

Iran is fighting problems on every border as well as from within. It’s why Obama should tie any agreement to the lasting stability that only comes from free and fair elections.

Visiting Tehran in late 1977, President Jimmy Carter toasted the new year, celebrating Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” His words linger with me to this day. Watching as an Iranian, this signaled nothing less than the demise of stability and the onset of the chaos commonly known as the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

War, corruption, executions, discrimination, sanctions, isolation—the litany of disaster endures as the sole heritage of that incantatory New Year’s toast.

Today, on Iran’s northern borders, separatist groups like the Gray Wolves of Azerbaijan are exerting centrifugal force on a security situation that is already on the brink. It is not at all hard to anticipate additional forces—Turkmens and others—joining the fray in the future.

On its eastern front, exchanges of fire with Pakistan are a daily occurrence. Migratory pressures on Khorasan and its holy city of Mashhad have reached a boiling point: The 3 million-strong city risks being overrun within hours by a massive, suburban underclass, most of whom are Sunnis and potentially receptive to the ISIS contagion. A Shiite stronghold wrapped in a Sunni explosive belt—not exactly a picture of stability.

In the south, the Gulf States view their Persian nuclear neighbor as a permanent archenemy. From the Shiite uprising in Yemen to the volatile situation in Bahrain—home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet—and the oil-rich Shiite regions of Saudi Arabia, the bloody frontier is anything but a cornerstone of “stability.” For these Arabs, Iran is the raised (and loaded) head of the snake.

On its western borders, where Kurdish forces are battling ISIS, Iran’s “stability” is the stuff of daily headlines. In Syria, Iran is seen as an occupying force. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, joining in the chorus, severely berates Tehran for its role in the Levant. In geopolitics, what you see is what you get—in this case, a colossal influx of Shiite refugees into Iran if Baghdad should fall into the hands of self-described Islamic State.

Meanwhile, at home, the volume of Iranians’ daily food baskets continues to shrink. President Hassan Rouhani’s government of “Moderation and Hope” has been forced to organize food handouts, as if Iran were some ungoverned welfare case. Unemployment has hit historic highs. The 1977 Carter toast started a brain drain that has yet to abate, with social tension and criminality as its corollaries; minor traffic disputes easily degenerate into street fights with machetes. Add severe water shortages (caused by decades of mismanagement) and a suffocating political environment featuring record numbers of public hangings and executions into the mix, and internal “stability” is the last thing on anybody’s horizon.

Institutionally, fault lines among the regime’s competing clans are reaching the breaking point. The contest between the clerical leadership and the government for control of the ministry of intelligence is only one battlefield among many: the Revolutionary Guard Corps vs. Rouhani’s technocrats, conservatives vs. reformers, oligarchs vs. the private sector, the judiciary vs. the executive, the head of the legislature vs. the rest of parliament. All this mayhem as 16 parallel and competing security organizations contend against two mortal challenges: the external one posed by ISIS, 2,000 of whose sympathizers were only recently rounded up in Iran; and the internal threat of a another popular uprising that threatens to spell the end for the current regime.

The ruling Jurassic Park clique perpetuates its anachronistic reality, offering no response to internal challenges to its survival except violence. But this Pavlovian trigger cannot be effective indefinitely. Superseded by every aspect of modern 21st-century life and frightened to death at the prospect of a remake of the 2009 popular protests—emerging this time vindictively from the depths of public despair—accomplices of these religious relics are taking matters into their own hands. The recent spate of acid attacks on women is only the latest manifestation of this dangerous trend. Exhausted and overwhelmed, the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has neither the necessary spiritual gravitas nor the political latitude of his predecessor to strike sustainable calm within his degenerate faction.

Thirty-six years have passed since Carter’s surrealistic praise for Iran. An entire region has since been devastated. Millions are now displaced. Women are being auctioned off. Journalists are being decapitated. Thousands of U.S. Marines have returned home in body bags. And President Obama appears ready to repeat the exact same mistake as President Carter: misperceiving the Islamic Republic as a stable country in a chaotic region.

It may be too late to explain to the Obama administration what a bad deal is. Too late to explain that the current chaos is simply, and sadly, the logical result of that New Year’s toast almost four decades ago. Too late to show that the vestiges in power in Iran will only exploit a deal to further suppress domestic discontent and nurture foreign proxies. Perhaps it is not yet too late to focus the administration’s distracted attention on the following truth: There is a solution to this crisis and it is political.

The idea of a “stable” Islamic Republic is a fallacy. The academic, historic, and geopolitical nonsense that Khomeinism equals Iran has lasted long enough. No single community or clan owns Iran. Iran belongs to all Iranians; it cannot and must not be reduced to Islam, nor Islam to Shiism or Shiism to Khomeinism.

As the P5+1 negotiate a resolution of the nuclear standoff with Iran, the Obama administration should tie any outcome to a prerequisite promise of lasting stability inside Iran. A subject of this magnitude requires national consensus-building. The Iranian signatory to any final deal must be representative of all Iranians. The signature that settles this conflict must not bear the infamy of religious, ethnic, political, and gender-based discrimination. This, in turn, will require that free and fair elections—conforming to international standards—are at long last held in Iran.

Mister President, politics is about making possible what is necessary. Toasting with Rouhani is neither possible nor necessary. Repeating Carter's failure is no realism. Franchising the North Korean fiasco is no trade. Failing to forge lasting stability would leave us, this author and his like-minded aides, to call for a Transitional Council. Mister President, failure is not an option. Failure would mean that desperate Iranians would pick up arms to defend their right to exist.