Two years after the Iran nuclear deal, internal moderation of the mullahs' regime has proven elusive, and Tehran has shown no aptitude to reform from within, argues Professor Ivan Sasha Sheehan of the University of Baltimore.

In an opinion piece for the New York Daily News on Friday, July 14, Prof Sheehan wrote:

The Iran nuclear agreement — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — has been in effect for a year and a half, during which time the world has been able to assess the impact of its formal implementation. But it has now had two full years to consider the effects of its negotiation, which concluded on July 14, 2015.

The negotiations themselves were promoted by then-U.S. President Barack Obama and his surrogates as a means of creating a new diplomatic status quo between Iran and the West. It was hoped that following the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran would moderate its behavior by demonstrating cooperation with former adversaries.

But internal moderation of the Iranian regime has proven elusive, and Tehran has shown no aptitude to reform from within.

The result? Western powers have learned the same lesson from the Rouhani administration that they learned from Mohammad Khatami, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and other Iranian officials similarly labeled as reformers worthy of outreach. Moderation is a mirage Tehran uses to seduce their prey.

Executions have skyrocketed under Rouhani's watch, with his administration overseeing an alarming 3,000 hangings during its first four-year term. Analysts expect the human rights violations to continue as the president commences a second term next month.

Rouhani's tenure is also distinguished by a dangerous continuation of ballistic missile research, development and testing (including evidence of cooperation with North Korea) and a repressive crackdown by the country’s security forces on activists, artists, academics, journalists and anyone accused of having ties to the West. These unfortunate trends have shown no signs of abatement on the second anniversary of the landmark agreement that granted far-reaching concessions in return for constructive engagement.

Neither has Tehran’s regional behavior demonstrated signs of improvement with the regime serving as a driving force behind sectarian conflict and an active participant in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

As Western powers commemorate the two-year anniversary of the nuclear negotiations, a comprehensive Iran policy that addresses the joint plan’s shortcomings is needed. The U.S. must take the lead — as it did when nuclear negotiations began — but this time it must lead the world in confronting Iran over the nature of its repressive, fundamentalist regime by building a global coalition that supports regime change from within.

To its credit, the Trump administration has taken steps in this direction by increasing sanctions on the country’s ballistic missile program and pursuing the blacklisting of Iran’s hardline paramilitary organization, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the Trump administration's willingness to confront Tehran would benefit from clear, overarching policy that more fully embraces the regime’s collapse and replacement.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s strong statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee was a first step in this direction: “Our policy towards Iran is to push back on (its regional) hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.”

Now Tillerson's rhetoric needs to be backed with clear statements by U.S. officials — including the President himself — that the false narrative of internal moderation has expired and the aspirations of the Iranian people for regime change are within reach.

It is widely believed that the sanctions and diplomatic pressure employed by the White House and Congress are intended to serve the goal of regime change. If so, this needs to be made clear so that interested parties can coordinate their strategies and address questions about the availability of the “elements inside of Iran” that Tillerson referred to.

The regime’s lobby in Washington would have U.S. officials believe no such elements exist, at least none with adequate organization and resources to oust the clerical regime and replace it with a democratic system of government. Such mischaracterizations are as inaccurate as they are well funded.

The accusations were addressed earlier this month when Tehran’s parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, along with the main Iranian opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), held its annual international gathering for democratic change in Paris. The gathering included tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates and hundreds of politicians and foreign policy experts from around the world who embraced regime change by the Iranian resistance.

In her speech at the event, NCRI President Maryam Rajavi praised the international community for rejecting the failed strategy of “appeasement” that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action represents and affirmed her movement’s commitment to the replacement of Iran's religious dictatorship, characterizing it as an absolute imperative and “the ultimate solution to the crises in the region.”

Rajavi noted what Iran scholars have long known: 1) Tehran’s vulnerability, domestic unpopularity and international isolation puts its overthrow within reach; 2) this can be achieved by the organized, democratic resistance that exists in the country and is led on the world stage by the NCRI.

The White House can mark the second anniversary of the negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by turning the page on the failed Obama policy of capitulation in the interest of concessions and supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people for democratic change. By working with the Iranian opposition to realize regime change in Tehran, U.S. officials send a signal that they are preparing for the regime’s collapse and democratic transition and put Iran on notice that a new Iran policy has been embraced.

Prof Ivan Sasha Sheehan is director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

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