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Whither the Iran Deal?

The firestorm accord of two White Houses ago is quietly up for discussion again, from Washington to Vienna to Tel Aviv to Tehran---is it going anywhere? And what of it?

Just what America needs: a rancorous debate about something seemingly peripheral, yet deeply emotional and more or less unbendingly partisan.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Iran deal, again. Far from the headlines about America’s apparently real inflation and real supply chain problems, real urban crime, real critical race theory, and the real mafioso menace out of Beijing, there’s direct negotiation in Vienna, and indirect negotiation in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Tehran, about the possibly totally fake redux to the original deal with the Islamist scourge in Persia that marked the end of the Barack Obama presidency and was then was jettisoned by the Donald Trump White House.  

“Ready to engage with partners during my November 11-20 travel to the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain,” U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said this month. “Focus will be on regional issues and negotiations over a mutual return to the JCPOA [the Iran deal].” 

Indeed, Maley, a Jewish American himself chided as anti-Israel when President Biden took power, is in Israel as I type, set to meet with the chief of the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agency. New Prime Minister Neftali Bennett, a right-wing antidote to the long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, will not meet with Malley, in either a sign of the relative irrelevance of Malley’s portfolio or real bad blood. 

Indeed, even the Iran deal’s devotees concede they’ve seen brighter days.

“The Iran deal can still be salvaged, but it will require more political will, flexibility, and creativity from all sides,” Trita Parsi, a lynchpin advocate of the original deal and now executive director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me for this story. “The U.S. side is increasingly convinced that Tehran is no longer interested in reviving the JCPOA. Tehran considers itself in a strong position and having survived Trump’s sanctions, it believes it can muster Biden’s pressure as well, according to the Biden team.”

A witch’s brew of factors has developed in recent years—some on the Western side, some long-standing realities on the ground in Iran—to give the bad boy hardliners in the Islamic Republic an upper hand they haven’t had the fortune of since the Revolution. Or as Iran expert Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar at the Bush School at Texas A&M (it takes any thinking man a lot to trust such an association) laid out in a seminal essay in Foreign Affairs over the summer, “The fissures [in Iran in the 1980’s] deepened after Khomeini died, when the Islamists’ conservative wing took over and removed its leftist brethren from power.” 

With the rise of new President Ebrahim Raissi, history is poised to repeat itself. Critics charge President Raissi has literal blood on his hands from the last rodeo from the purges in the ’80s, and in the encore, he’ll seal his omerta by securing de facto ruler status, permanent amnesty for him and his friends, and the next phrase of “The Old Revolution.”  

“Iran needs sanctions relief, but it is not clear to the Iranians that an American return to the JCPOA will provide Tehran with real, practical, and durable sanctions relief,” Parsi told me. “Indeed, investments will not flow to Iran if the E.U. and other companies believe that a Republican president will take the White House in 2024.”

And here, we get to the crux of why I do what I do as a journalist: war in the off years between political campaigns, war by another name during the big show. Former Vice President Mike Pence—if you’re interested, maybe you should be—is running for president whenever he can… He’s not so much interested in striking out against a former boss ambivalent about his hanging, but he is certainly impassioned on striking regime change in Iran. 

“One of the biggest lies the ruling regime has sold the world is that there’s no alternative to the status quo,” Pence last month controversially told the National Council for Resistance of Iran, a basically open front for the ever more controversial People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK). “But there is an alternative, a well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative called the MEK.” 

The essential justification I received earlier this year from a senior national security official for why team Biden would do the Iran deal again wasn’t so much SAIS as simply political: Biden himself might have a testy relationship with Obama, but he’s uncritically re-installed Obama’s men and women. 

That is, Malley, a 44 alum. That is Wendy Sherman, a once and present deputy secretary of State. That is Susan Rice, a strangely domestically-focused but lurking former national security advisor. Barack Obama spent eight years doing something, damnit, and to prove that, shoring up the Affordable Care Act at home and the Iran deal abroad is the order of the day.  

All of this is queasy stuff for anyone on the political right who viewed the Iran hawk crusade as historically unsympathetic. Ross Douthat is out with a fairly brilliant new column on a comeback for Reaganism: We’ve got the crime; we’ve the inflation; we’ve got the actual communist specter out East. All we need now, if I might add, is a perplexing but deeply important Iran crisis.

As if Christoper Hitchens is getting the last laugh from the grave, the Islamic Republic of Iran, however we got here, has slipped back into the position it was in the lead up to the publication of his friend Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” … that is, it has become a cause celebre for the anti-American, post-colonialist, incoherent international left. Isolation from the West has made it a tawdry client state of China, that mouther of Black Lives Matter-type sloganeering… it is a dynamic that is no doubt likely to intensify if the U.S. really turns off the spigot to Beijing, as it should.   

This is the sort of thing I used to write about more, but there are now two true factions of the right as it pertains to Iran: the first, America’s own Raissi wing if you will, led by Mr. Pence, perhaps former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, certainly John Bolton, who would apply American force to effect regime change pronto if the Republicans reclaimed power soon enough on the back of American cultural madness. The second faction is one that would concede a level of pragmatic hawkishness toward Tehran. Reason one: China. Reason two: a level of civilizational kinship with Israel, that Jewish state of at least perfunctory national pride and secular replacement-rate birth rates. In this faction, I would name Robert C. O’Brien, the former national security advisor, and Tucker Carlson, among others, who would take a quieter but clear enough approach. 

Against this backdrop, and Biden’s capsized poll numbers, it’s no wonder it’s an early winter in Vienna.