By now you have seen the indelible images from the streets of dozens of cities and towns across the Islamic Republic of Iran. They have found a way out, despite the fact that the regime has been routinely cutting off the internet. Videos of mothers screaming “Damn you Khamenei.” Photographs of women burning their hijabs and dancing around bonfires. A young woman cutting her hair in public while crowds chant “death to the dictator.”
As has happened in every major demonstration since the pro-democracy Green Movement was crushed in 2009, many are speaking openly of revolution.
The current demonstrations, which began on September 16, were sparked, as so much else in Iran, by a woman.
The Islamic Republic’s ruling clerics, echoing renowned Muslim theologians from a millennium before, are obsessed with the convulsive power of female sexuality. In this case: with the dark brown hair of Masha Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman not known for provocative political behavior. She died in Tehran after being beaten to death by Iran’s morality police for the crime of having too much hair showing beneath her mandatory headscarf.
Despite the regime’s totalitarian efforts to restrict cultural expression and personal liberties, Westernization—even in the most closed quarters of the country—has been unstoppable. The Franco-Iranian scholar, Farhad Khosrokhavar, published a revealing inquiry in 2009 into the daughters of senior clerics in the holy city of Qom, the spiritual and educational center of the theocracy. Avoir vingt ans au pays des ayatollahs, or To Be Twenty in the Land of the Ayatollahs, showed that even the most conservative daughters of the revolution have profoundly Occidental sentiments and aspirations. So, it’s not at all surprising to see demonstrations for Amini in Qom right now.
In Qom—and across the country—young Iranians are raging against religious tyranny. They want the Islamic Republic to fall. They want liberty. Repeatedly, and in great numbers, they have shown they want democracy.
So, it is a strange thing that the United States, the West’s engine of liberty and democracy, is so ardently seeking a nuclear deal that will enrich the men who are literally beating these women to death.
We have been here before. In 2009, Barack Obama largely ignored the way the regime crushed ordinary Iranians—it took him nearly two weeks to utter any support for the pro-democracy demonstrators and condemn the violence against them—for the sake of a higher cause: his dream of a nuclear deal. In Obama’s view, this was the vehicle for overcoming the long-standing animosity between the United States and the Islamic Republic and, more so, an exit for America from the Middle East.
In his not-so-secret letters to the Supreme Leader, first sent early in his presidency, Obama expressed his hope for engagement. Later, in the meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials in Oman in 2012 and 2013, he made irreversible concessions on Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. All this was meant to achieve a breakthrough, which our first post-Western president believed himself ideally suited to deliver.
The 44th president made two key mistakes. First, he didn’t sufficiently anticipate Republican opposition. Second, Obama made no attempt to sell his executive agreement as a treaty to Congress—given its momentous nature, it surely should have been submitted to the Senate for ratification. So in 2018, Donald Trump tossed Obama’s handiwork.
Now, with fewer pretensions and less hope, President Biden appears determined to follow in Obama’s footsteps.
Any new accord won’t go beyond the confines of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which allows on October 18, 2025—“Termination Day”—the production of advanced centrifuges (IR2s, IR4s, IR6s, and IR8s). Unrestricted uranium enrichment arrives five years later. Once Tehran can manufacture advanced centrifuges, which require much smaller cascades that can be easily hidden in warehouses, it’s game, set, and match.
Biden is willing to keep the JCPOA’s crippling defects while dropping sanctions, which would reward Tehran with hundreds of billions of dollars of unrestricted oil sales and reinvigorated commercial relations with Europe and Asia.
And yet, despite all the rewards and few restrictions, Khamenei so far has refused Washington’s offer.
If one had been clear-sighted about the Islamic Republic, the American path forward was obvious after 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed hidden nuclear complexes at Natanz and at Arak. The point was rammed home seven years later, when another undeclared enrichment facility was revealed buried inside a mountain near Qom. In other words, under no circumstances, should Washington trust Tehran.
The history of the clerical regime, which came to power in 1979, should provide a clear lesson to policymakers: The ayatollahs will stop at nothing to go nuclear. For decades, the theocracy has endured heavy U.S. and European sanctions, sabotage, and the assassination of nuclear scientists and engineers. It has also spent tens of billions of dollars to support its nuclear program—money that could have been allocated to poor Iranians, a group whom the regime considers essential to its political survival. Yet the ruling clergy and their Revolutionary Guards persisted, clearly demonstrating that the nuclear program is even more essential to their larger ambitions.
Western diplomacy with this regime has been fanciful. Only U.S. or Israeli air power has had a chance of derailing the regime’s oft-stated intention to have industrial-scale uranium enrichment, which can easily be diverted to weapons production. (Neither the International Atomic Energy Agency nor Western intelligence services can possibly monitor such a vast enterprise.) It’s been the specter of American might, as much as Iran’s second-rate scientific and manufacturing capacity and U.S. sanctions, that has slowed Tehran’s ambitions.
But as American volition to intervene in the Middle East has waned, Iranian willingness to push the nuclear envelope has increased. Incremental progress on the atomic program, which the Europeans and Americans incrementally accepted, has become the new norm.
Trump, whom Iranian officials often depicted as a bellicose madman, withdrew America from the Iran deal. But with Biden in office, the theocracy rapidly accelerated the development of centrifuges, the quantity and purity of uranium enrichment, and the stiff-arming and dismantling of the IAEA’s efforts to monitor its nuclear advance.
So when will the Islamic Republic’s ambitions be complete? Private comments by both U.S. and Israeli officials strongly suggest that no Western intelligence service currently has agents that can provide an exact timeline about how much work remains on a nuclear trigger—the only bomb-essential, technical achievement that Tehran may not yet grasp. Six months ago, Jerusalem thought, and senior U.S. officials more or less accepted, that the clerical regime needed another 18 to 24 months to produce a trigger. In other words: Tehran could have a nuke before the next U.S. presidential inauguration.
Khamenei’s deal-denying obstinacy ought to be viewed as a liberating opportunity by the Biden administration. Why should we allow Khamenei and his regime a guaranteed pathway to bomb-grade uranium and long-range ballistic missiles and let them extort us? Unrestricted oil and gas sales, a bonanza of foreign investment, and big, legal purchases of Russian conventional weaponry will significantly abet Iranian expansionism . . . unless we believe just down the road that the Supreme Leader and his like-minded friends will give way to more reasonable people?
Obama’s nuclear deal never really made sense unless one believed the regime would evolve into something much less malign. But the theocracy has crushed every internal effort at even the most minimal political reform, and, as Masha Amini’s death makes clear, the regime that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale is still very much that regime.
Democrats, who’ve been pushing apologias since Bill Clinton apologized to Iran in an effort to jump-start better relations, have a chance to get more realistic about the nature of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s decision to tell Washington to pound sand may finally allow Democrats, who’ve been addicted to arms control with the theocracy, to regain a certain moral clarity about the most aggressive, antisemitic, revisionist state in the Middle East.
Many Republicans should also thank the cleric, who is the most impressive post-World War II dictator in the region. Those who’ve wanted to believe that a “good deal” and better Iranian behavior was possible if Washington just ramped up sanctions enough to coerce the mullahs into moderation are now obliged to ask themselves whether they are willing to argue for military strikes, which could lead to a war in the Persian Gulf. Whatever the timeline was for sanctions working—always just over the horizon—it certainly no longer matches the timeline for Iran to test a nuke.
If most Republicans, too, turn out to be Iran doves, then they can at least try to develop a bipartisan approach to the Islamic Republic that involves, at a minimum, continuing economic pressure. Sanctions won’t stop the mullahs’ nuclear drive, but they can weaken the clerical regime internally and deny it hard currency for its foreign adventures. Americans, Europeans, Turks, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and, most emphatically, the Israelis would be a lot better off if Washington forestalled the Iranian bomb.
But if Americans no longer have the self-confidence to engage in such military action, if they just don’t believe U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is worth the price, then they can still default to something less delusional and destructive than paying an endlessly lying enemy to forsake the cornerstone of its hegemonic ambitions. We should take a cue from the protestors in the streets: a regime that so easily kills women isn’t one the United States can do business with.
American and European “realists” have never been so wrong. It is the nature of the regime that counts.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.