Aaron David Miller

Wall Street Journal "Think Tank", Oct. 20

The notion that the Iranian nuclear agreement might lead Iran to moderate was always a long-term bet. And the Obama Administration’s argument that even without that moderation an Iran with a nuclear weapon (or close to one) was far more dangerous than a Tehran without one is a logical and rational conclusion.

But what is clear now is that Islamic Republic regime is not moderating its repressive and authoritarian character but consolidating it. Here’s why.

Iran is now more involved in supporting the Assad regime than ever before. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards al-Quds force is personally directing a coordinated effort with Russia, the regime, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias, to take back Aleppo. The Iran, Russia, Assad alliance is a new and likely enduring Middle East reality.

Last week, even as Iran began to take steps to implement the nuclear accord, Tehran tested a new guided long range ballistic missile. The new system is an upgrade in Iran’s Shihab-3 missiles, in that it can be directed toward its target and may have the capacity to carry nuclear warheads.

The test may have already violated the terms of the nuclear agreement and UN Security Council resolutions, but the reality is that Iran remains determined to upgrade its military capacity and increase its ability to throw its weight around the regime – hardly an encouraging sign of moderate predispositions.

If there was hope that the fate of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian would be shaped positively by the nuclear accord, his conviction for spying last week and the political tick-tock in Iranian politics that followed suggests otherwise.

Some kind of deal for free him may yet materialize, but the accusations of an influential Iranian parliamentarian that the reporter was actively spying and cooperating with Iranian reformers, including President Hassan Rouhani, seemed designed to complicate a prisoner swap.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian hardliners want to make it almost impossible to improve U.S.-Iranian relations, and preventing a deal for the Americans Tehran is holding will do precisely that.

The length of the nuclear accord is anywhere from 10 to 25 years depending on the sunset provisions, and we certainly can’t rule out changes in Iran’s behavior at home and abroad. I’d simply suggest a few things that argue against a steady, let alone quick, evolution in the character of this regime.

First, the Supreme Leader agreed to this deal because he wanted to consolidate the revolution not weaken it. He is aware of the popular discontent over the country’s economic malaise, international isolation, and repressive social structure. Seeking economic relief from sanctions and improving the economy so that the Iranian public benefits is smart and will ensure regime longevity.

Second, it’s impossible to separate Iran’s quest for a weapon or its desire to be a screwdriver’s turn away from one from the way the regime perceives itself and its regional ambitions. A nuclear weapon isn’t merely a discretionary foreign policy add-on, but is basic to a regime that sees itself as threatened, desires a hedge against regime change, and wants to enhance its power in the region.

If Iran doesn’t moderate, its desire to remain a putative nuclear weapons state will remain an important part of its national security agenda. Based on what we know now, prospects of such fundamental change are scan indeed.

If the past is any guide, highly ideological regimes — see China, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and Cuba — have proven adept at opening up economically but still retaining authoritarian and repressive control.

Anyone who thinks Iran is on a linear course to moderation ought to lay down until the feeling passes.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.