Unlike Obama, Trump should not be misled by Iran’s reformists

In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed by Iran and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on the eve of the U.S. mid-term elections
Iran’s reformist camp has lost its credibility among the people, and its effectiveness in running a country of 80 million people. The reforms they promised never materialized. Obama believed those promises; Trump should not.
In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed by Iran and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. A large majority of Iranians living in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora embraced this agreement for two main reasons.
One, having been the first direct high-level diplomatic contact between Iran and the United States since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the JCPOA insinuated the prospect of further diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries. Two, the agreement was presumed to bring about economic prosperity that would ultimately trickle down to the Iranian people.
Neither expectation materialized. The supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei, asserted that this agreement was the limit to which the regime would go in terms of direct negotiations with the United States. This effectively eliminated any possibility for future diplomacy between the two countries. Moreover, the assets that were unfrozen as a result of the agreement were quickly channeled to finance Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) regional hegemonic adventures and various business enterprises. Millions more were given to terrorist factions such and Hezbollah and Hamas, spent on IRGC’s proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and supported IRGC’s ballistic missile program.
The signing of this agreement was triumphant for the Iranian regime’s so-called reformists (or “moderates”) who at the time enjoyed the presidency of one of their own, Hassan Rouhani. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was cheered as he arrived in Tehran from Vienna, where the JCPOA was signed. For weeks, reformist newspapers boasted this victory on their front pages. Soon however, the agreement proved to be financially meaningless to the Iranian people.
As wars in Syria and Yemen intensified, Iranians continued to suffer economically and social gaps widened. Abysmal economic and sociopolitical conditions eventually culminated in widespread protests in December 2017. One of the earliest iconoclastic slogans bellowed by the protesters was “Principalist! Reformist! The saga is over.” This was the first public pronouncement by the Iranian people validating the realization that reforms in Iran had proven futile. 
For years, reformists had placed all their might into creating a formidable structure that imparted the only hope for Iran’s transition to a liberal democracy. They had even managed to create networks in the United States in an aim to persuade (or lobby) the Obama White House into accepting their cause as the single pathway to democracy in Iran, and their faction as the sole contingent with which the Obama administration could negotiate and come to terms.
Still haunted by the controversy of his lackadaisical posture toward mass protests in 2009, and intent on leaving a legacy prior to concluding his second term, Obama succumbed to this scheme. His naïve presumption was that dealing with reformists who illusorily portrayed themselves as “elected officials” was congruent with diplomacy with the regime in its entirety. Yet, Obama’s administration failed to realize that the Iranian regime consists of two parallel governances: the reformist camp, and the faction led by Khamenei and the IRGC.
THE LATTER, which is considered Iran’s “deep state,” has complete dominance over the country’s political affairs. Khamenei’s ideologically-driven policies pertaining to defense, international relations and the economy supersede any contract or agreement enacted between Iran’s government and other countries, and is subject to impromptu modification – even violation – by the deep state.
With the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, reformists sustained an agonizing defeat. In order to stay relevant to the Iranian people and the international community, and maintain a semblance of the JCPOA, reformists felt the need to devise a new strategy. They embarked on a campaign trying to influence public sentiment in the US and within the Iranian diaspora.
Just recently, Facebook and Twitter dismantled hundreds of accounts tied to an alleged Iranian regime propaganda operation. These campaigns promoted the JCPOA and disseminated disinformation, as well as contents attacking President Trump and fostering anti-Israel, anti-Saudi themes. Deeply infiltrated by reformist elements, Persian-language media platforms in Europe and the US published “cherry-picked” news reports that portrayed the regime and the reformist camp in a more favorable light.
Correspondents and anchorpersons working for these networks presented their reports in a fashion that depicted the Iranian regime as a victim of Trump administration policies, and expressed the same as “personal opinions” on their social media accounts. Pundits were selectively invited to discussion forums to ensure a steady flow of praise for the reformists.
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the reformist camp’s mouthpiece and alleged lobby in the US, used social media, targeted emails and other means of communication to sustain a campaign of sabotage against the Trump administration, conservative legislators and essentially any opponent of the JCPOA, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Journalists and self-proclaimed activists subscribing to NIAC’s mission and ulterior agenda relentlessly published opinion articles in widely-circulating newspapers dismissing the protests and commending the reformists.
Fortunately, the reformists’ campaign of spreading “fake news,” character assassination and social media harassment failed. The Iranian people, inside and outside Iran, uttered their final words in December. The regime is not amenable to reform. Even if the reformists’ intentions were sincere, they possess little power to effectuate meaningful sociopolitical change in Iran.
Thus, in order to cease Iran’s systematic destruction and reestablish stability in the Middle East, the most rational strategy for the Trump administration is to pursue regime change. To that end, the Trump administration should embrace opposition groups that advocate secular democracy in Iran; specifically, dissident organizations that have not been involved in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought this misery upon the Iranian people in the first place.
When it comes to dealing with the Iranian regime, the international community and particularly the Unites States must maintain a strong and shrewd posture. Because to think that Iran’s regime is reformable is to believe one can kill a roaring beast by politely asking it to swallow a bullet, instead of shooting it in the heart.
The writer is an academic neurologist and Iranian-American opposition activist based in San Antonio, Texas.