The single greatest strategic challenge the United States faces in 2016 remains the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even though it released captive U.S. sailors, it remains a source of terror and sectarianism that keeps the region in a continuous and growing death spiral. Still, there is a yawning gap between U.S. words and actions toward Tehran that has been noted by the regime in Tehran and has, in fact, empowered its bad behavior. The contradictions of U.S. policy must give way to consistent, sober analysis and statecraft if we are to regain the upper hand and promote the regional stability and security we all seek.
Indeed, if one were to sum up the policy of the United States and its allies toward the Middle East over the past year, the catchword would be “irony.” Across the board, the United States has shown leniency in the face of belligerence and used half-measures to confront adversaries who define extremism in both word and deed. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, for one, has skillfully leveraged the irony of U.S. policy by portraying himself as “moderate,” despite the rash of evidence to the opposite conclusion. Call it “Irany.”
For example, in late December Tehran hosted an International Islamic Unity Conference. The Iranian rhetoric leading to the conference demonstrated its eagerness to latch onto Western fears of Islamic terrorism, and to spin those fears in favor of its own ends. On its face, these sorts of remarks play into the notion that Mr. Rouhani is a moderating influence within his theocratic government. But they only accomplish this end if we deliberately ignore Mr. Rouhani’s behavior.
Since his inauguration in summer 2013 and increasingly over the course of the past year, Mr. Rouhani has made it clear that in spite of all his positive-sounding rhetoric, he has neither the will nor the capability for promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam. He came to power promising vague reforms within the bounds of the theocratic constitution. Two-and-a-half years later, every one of these promises have proven to be false or unattainable. Nevertheless, the Western allies have continued to hail his “moderation.”
Mr. Rouhani has overseen the highest rate of executions in more than 25 years — a stunning record for a country that has been consistently recognized as the world’s worst abuser of the death penalty. Although the final tally has not yet been recorded, more than 2,000 prisoners are estimated to have been killed by hanging, many in public. Is this the work of a “moderate” leader? Mr. Rouhani has also overseen a marked increase in enforcement of Shariah law, criminalization of progressive social trends, and the persecution and arrest of Western nationals and journalists.
The irony of supporting and praising a figure like Mr. Rouhani is made that much more bitter by the fact that there is no shortage of other Muslim individuals and groups, many of them Iranian, who steadfastly embody the progressive sort of Islam that is only too eager to coexist with the diverse, modern world. These include the Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, who has long promoted a 10-point plan for the future of the country, including principles such as free and fair elections, gender equality, and separation of religion and state.
It is bewildering that Western governments including the United States have continued to keep the Iranian opposition at a distance, even turning a blind eye toward attacks on the Iranian expatriate community in Camp Liberty, Iraq. Agents of Iran’s fundamentalist regime have continued to murder these brave people, who advocate democracy and tolerance not just in words, but in deed.
Needless to say, the reluctance to even protect the innocent in Iraq has been motivated by the desire of the United States and Europe to safeguard the Iran nuclear deal. But the process of lurching toward implementation of that deal has only shown how misguided the West’s policy toward Iran has been over the past year. Fortunately, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain has pressed the administration to uphold its commitment to protect these dissidents.
In October and November, Iran tested two ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This has led some to say that Iran is already cheating on the nuclear deal through its missile tests, since the U.N. resolution governing the implementation of that deal also called for restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile development and testing, for a period of eight years.
Let’s make a 2016 resolution and see President Rouhani as he actually is and formulate a policy based on facts and not hope. The first test is before France and Italy later in January when Mr. Rouhani is scheduled for state visits. The Iranian regime, including Mr. Rouhani, should be held accountable for their belligerent domestic and international conduct. Period.
• Gen. Hugh Shelton is former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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