U.S. offers carrots; Iran counters with sticks

Iranians walk through a bazaar in Tajrish northern Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“Never threaten an Iranian.” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is reported to have said this to his Russian counterpart last week in overtime negotiations over a nuclear deal in Vienna. Lucky for Iran, it is not being threatened in these talks. President Obama has shown little interest in reining in the regime. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reported last month, Obama has in recent years tried to entice Iran by urging U.S. allies to release convicted Iranian arms smugglers. Obama writes Iran’s Supreme Leader hopeful letters from time to time. In his messages celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama has emphasized that he approaches Iran with respect. In December, the president even mused that after a nuclear deal with Iran, the country may go on to become a “successful regional power.”

This principle of “never threaten” does not cut both ways. The New York Times reported this week that Iran’s Coordination Council of Islamic Propaganda is urging the citizenry to celebrate Friday’s annual Quds Day (named for the Arabic word for Jerusalem) with such slogans as “Death to America” and “Death to International Zionism.”

A spokesman for the Iran-supported League of the Righteous told me last year in Iraq that his group was prepared at any time to turn their guns again on American soldiers. When the Iran-supported Houthi rebels approached Yemen’s capital in January and February, the U.S. embassy felt so threatened that it closed and sent its personnel home. It’s not just limited to Iranian-backed militias.

In fairness to Obama, the nuclear deal with Iran is deliberately narrow. Any agreement that results will not require Iran to end its support for terrorism, free its political prisoners or even stop trying to acquire missiles that could carry a nuke. The narrowness that is liberating for Iran is also liberating for the U.S. Obama in May announced that he will be selling billions of dollars’ worth of new weapons systems to Iran’s regional rivals and America’s traditional Arab allies in the Middle East.

Last Monday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes defended the deal’s narrowness in two ways. He said the White House would support a deal only if it would provide limits on Iran’s nuclear program even if the regime itself has not changed. But he added, “We believe a world in which there is a deal with Iran is much more likely to produce an evolution in Iran’s behavior than a world where there is no deal.”

There are two problems with this statement. To start, Iran has not modified or evolved its behavior since November 2013, following approval of an interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action. According to the State Department’s latest report on international terrorism, Iran’s support for terror is “undiminished.” Iran continues to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria and anti-government rebels in Yemen. Allies of the U.S. say Iran has only become more aggressive since signing an interim agreement. The second problem is more fundamental. If Iran does not end its shadow war against our allies in the Middle East, then the deal being negotiated in Vienna will be a bad one, no matter how stringent the inspections or how crippling the “snap-back” sanctions.

The deal will unfreeze up to $150 billion in Iranian revenue now stuck in overseas bank accounts. If Iran’s behavior doesn’t evolve, a portion of that money will go to terrorists and militias who threaten our allies. But there is also a problem of precedent. The U.S. has spent much diplomatic capital over the last decade to persuade other countries to forgo their right to enrich uranium and not erect the kind of infrastructure Iran has built under the penalty of U.N. sanctions up to now. As Obama thinks about his legacy, he would do well to consider this. By agreeing to narrow the terms of the agreement to only Iran’s nuclear program, Obama has lost sight of why so many in the world were concerned about Iran’s nuclear program in the first place. Since 1979, Iran has not been a normal nation that should expect to enjoy normal rights.

There is no reason today to think that the view of Zarif or the regime he represents has changed on terrorism. Nor is there much reason to think it will change even if there is a nuclear deal. Iran is not subtle about how it threatens its enemies; just watch for the slogans this week during Quds Day festivities in Iran.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.